It was the third period at Madison Square Garden and Montreal Canadiens captain Max Pacioretty could hear a familiar Russian-inflected voice barking at him from back on the blueline.
“Radu [Habs forward Alex Radulov] was F2 on that play, so he was up the ice and I think it was [New York Rangers forward Rick] Nash who was in behind,” Pacioretty explained after a team chalk talk and video session in Manhattan.
The man shepherding the defence and moving Pacioretty into the proper position in the waning states of Game 3 of the Eastern Conference quarter-final – the Habs won, and hold a 2-1 series lead – was 38-year-old Andrei Markov, the General.
“We end up scoring when Radu cuts off a pass, but it could have gone the other way,” Pacioretty continued. “It’s little stuff most people don’t notice at all, but [Markov] saw the whole play before it happened, he’s the guy directing traffic out there.”
On a team that boasts Team Canada fixture Shea Weber on the blueline, it’s hard to argue anyone else is a more crucial cog in the defensive machine.
So let’s just say Markov is the kind of complementary piece most coaches can only dream of.
Weber’s game has taken off since coach Claude Julien elevated the savvy and stylish Russian to the top defensive pair on Feb. 25 for a game against the Toronto Maple Leafs.
Against the Rangers, Weber has been a monster. He assisted on the overtime goal in Game 2 before scoring the winner himself in Game 3, and New York’s J.T. Miller has the bruises to show what happens if you tick him off.
Markov has merely been essential.
His vision and passing ability are a perfect complement to Weber’s punishing approach, and his quiet, efficient presence on the top pair allows Julien to slot the left-shot Jordie Benn with righty Jeff Petry on the second pair.
That knocks Nathan Beaulieu, a gifted but inconsistent puck mover, to the third pairing with playoff rookie Brandon Davidson. It’s a level of depth the Rangers are finding problematic.
It is instructive Markov has played the fourth-most minutes in the playoffs – not bad for an old guy with ruined knees – and has yet to register an official hit.
That takes some doing in a series in which the statisticians are giving them out like rally towels (the teams have combined for league-leading 299 in three games).
“How many hits did [Hall of Fame defenceman] Nick Lidstrom ever have?” Pacioretty said.
It’s a lofty comparison, but in many ways it’s apt.
Markov may not have any points yet in the series, but his influence is all over it, at both ends of the rink; Weber is mashing people, Markov is pulling tactical strings.
When they are on the ice, the Habs have controlled 57 per cent of the even-strength shot attempts and just under 70 per cent of the scoring chances, according to Corsica Hockey, a stats website.
In Game 3, the Rangers simply couldn’t get to the net. On one rare occasion where they did late in the game, agitator and resident jokester Steve Ott gently caressed New York forward Mats Zuccarello’s curls after a whistle. Zuccarello was deeply unimpressed and replied with a hefty cross-check, but the Habs thought it was hilarious.
From a pure numbers standpoint, Petry and Benn’s underlying numbers are among the best in the playoffs.
Still, the latter said he often finds himself watching Weber and Markov in practice and in games.
Markov is a man of few words, although Benn, who arrived at the trade deadline, has discovered a funny, mischievous teammate behind closed doors.
On the ice, he sets an obvious example.
“Just so consistent, and [Markov] always manages to be in the right place at the right time,” said Benn, who was a healthy scratch for the Dallas Stars in the postseason a year ago but has emerged as perhaps the Habs’ most unsung contributor. “He’s one of those dynamic players where no situation is ever overwhelming, he never panics.”
That sangfroid has helped Markov cope with the Rangers forwards’ superior speed. The heavy workload may yet catch up with his aging body, but for now Julien is more than happy to ride his top pair.
Unlike the Rangers, who typically distribute their ice time evenly, the Habs have a clear-cut top four – Weber, Markov, Petry, Benn – and mix in the third pairing here and there.
That Julien can enjoy a certain measure of flexibility in his combinations, as Benn, Davidson and Alexei Emelin are comfortable playing on either the right or the left, is a function of the sterling play of his top pair.
Weber’s play has been exemplary. But look a few feet to his left and you’ll notice No. 79 hasn’t been too shabby.Report Typo/Error