The cliché holds that no one is indispensable in their job - but when it comes to the NHL, that's more true of some than others.
Statistics seldom lie, when all-star defenceman Andrei Markov is out of the Montreal Canadiens lineup, victories suddenly grow rarer.
As one veteran Montreal scribe once put it: No Markov, no chance. A version of that sentiment also prevails in the Habs dressing room.
The team has opted to play without a captain this NHL season, instead appointing three assistant captains, and has indicated that if one were selected he would be appointed by management.
But if the matter were put to a vote, Markov's 'A' would likely be converted to a 'C' in a landslide that would make a tin-pot dictator blush.
"If we had to vote and designate one player to be captain, it would be him," winger Georges Laraque said.
The Habs managed to limp along at .500 after the Russian blueliner - who will skate on his country's top defensive pairing at the Vancouver Olympics - sliced a foot tendon in the opening game of the season in an otherwise innocent-looking collision with Montreal goaltender Carey Price.
But Markov's return on Dec. 19, after missing 10 weeks and 36 games (he was originally expected to miss four months), has made a palpable difference.
The Canadiens have won six of the nine games Markov has played since his return, and over that span he has notched 12 points and been held off the scoresheet just once.
If past precedent suggests the Canadiens need to accumulate 38 points from their remaining games to earn a playoff spot, their winning percentage with Markov in the fold suggests that may be possible.
And to think, he's still a good distance short of his top form.
"I feel pretty good, but my ankle is still a little bit weak. I'm getting more comfortable every day," Markov said yesterday.
The 31-year-old, who finished one point shy of the Habs' scoring lead with 64 points last season, has averaged 24 minutes a game since returning, and is a plus-4. And his sparkling play has rekindled speculation he will be the team's next captain.
The understated, reserved Markov is not exactly an ardent self-promoter ("I don't like talking about myself," he said), but nor is he entirely opposed to the idea.
"Nobody's asked me that, first of all, but if they're going to ask me I'm going to think about it," he said.
Asked if that meant he's interested, Markov replied, "I think so."
According to teammates, Markov has been more vocal than in past seasons in the dressing room, which may be a consequence of his improving English. To say nothing of his on-ice abilities.
"His leadership capabilities are evident whether or not he's got a letter on his chest. He leads by example and his play is inspiring to everybody on this team," forward Mike Cammalleri said.
Added Laraque: "The way he plays and handles himself on the ice, there's no doubt that even though he doesn't have the 'C,' he's our captain."
With Markov's return and winger Brian Gionta coming back from a broken foot, the Canadiens are finally resembling the team general manager Bob Gainey assembled last summer (still missing are brothers Andrei and Sergei Kostitsyn, who are both day-to-day with leg injuries).
"We didn't just miss their presence on the ice, we also missed them in the dressing room and around the team, these are individuals who bring a lot to the team off the ice," Montreal head coach Jacques Martin said earlier this week.
Gionta's return on a line with his old pal Scott Gomez and the recently acquired Benoît Pouliot, has brought badly needed balance to the Canadiens attack and added some grit and speed to the lineup.
But Markov's influence has been even more remarkable.
In the nine games preceding Markov's return, the Habs' man-advantage was ticking over at an eminently respectable 30.4 per cent. But in the nine games since, the power play has hit an otherworldly 44 per cent, racking up 12 goals in 27 opportunities. It is now the NHL's best, as it was in two of the past three seasons with Markov manning the left point.
Teammates say the Russian's sublime passing skills and vision of the ice often obscure the fact he is also an above-average defender in 5-on-5 situations.
"I'd say he's among the very best I've played with," Cammalleri said. "He's a special player, his ability to read plays both offensively and defensively is at an IQ level beyond just about anything I've ever seen."
Cammalleri, who leads the Habs with 20 goals, said one of the aspects that factored into his decision to sign a free-agent contract with Montreal was the team's power play, on which Markov plays such a central role.
In fact, one might even describe it as indispensable.Report Typo/Error