Canadiens-Islanders: Christmas Comes Early for Markov and the Habs
He could never be accused of being jolly, he is far more svelte than rotund, and, as he reminded us this week, his Christmas doesn't arrive until Jan. 7.
But, without question, Andrei Markov returned to the Canadiens' lineup bearing gifts tonight.
We wondered how long it would take for Markov to make a contribution. He hadn't played since the first game of the season on Oct. 1. Would it take him one game to regain his form? More? Had he come back too soon? On the "Hockey Night in Canada" broadcast, Guy Carbonneau was quick to point out that Markov looked rusty in his first shift or two.
It wouldn't take long for fans to learn the answers to their questions. Some broadcasters were left eating their words. Markov's impact on the Canadiens was immediate.
Markov scored his first goal of the season on the Canadiens' first power play opportunity. He sneaked in from the point and tapped one past Martin Biron. Markov got his second of the game, and the season, in the second period, again on the power play. This time he used a big shot to beat Biron.
Instantly, the Canadiens' power play becomes less predictable, and gives the opposition more to cover. The Habs scored their third power play goal of the game when Glen Metropolit converted a nice passing play by Max Pacioretty and Scott Gomez.
Markov's presence also boosted the play of his teammates, especially the defense corps. As a group they were quicker to gather in rebounds and to clear the zone.
"He's an all-star defenceman that has great vision and moves the puck well," said coach Jacques Martin. "It's nice to get a top player back. Those guys are hard to replace. His execution was really outstanding."
In addition to power play production, the Canadiens were also perfect while shorthanded. With Tomas Plekanec taking a few penalties, Gomez and Sergei Kostitsyn were stars, each logging more than five minutes on the penalty-killing unit.
The formula for success tonight was the return of Markov, special teams, and goaltending.
Jaroslav Halak had a heavy workload tonight making 40 saves, several of the brilliant variety, for his first shutout this season. Halak also benefited from his teammates who prevented screened shots and gave up few second-chance scoring opportunities. The Canadiens blocked 24 shots, 14 in the first period alone.
While Halak has struggled at times in his career on the road, tonight had all the feel of a home game. A snowstorm was blamed for poor attendance, although the Islanders haven't exactly been spinning the turnstiles on clear nights. Of the 7,000 in the building, broadcasters estimated that Canadiens fans outnumbered their hosts 2-1.
"Our fans were like a sixth player on the ice," said Halak. The description for fan support is usually the 'seventh man' but we'll give him a pass on a colloquialism.
The Islanders came into the game struggling to score at Nassau Coliseum. They have now been outscored 15-3 in their last three home games.
While the Canadiens were much improved, they still gave up 40 shots. With the game in hand, the Habs sat back in the third period and played the Martin system.
Markov's ice time was being closely managed and kept to 20 minutes. Expect that number to rise over the next few games. The defense will also be improved upon the return of Roman Hamrlik when recovered from his knee injury.
That will also allow Hal Gill and Josh Gorges' ice time to be limited to a more manageable amount. While Gill blocked five shots tonight, he was also responsible for five giveaways. Both Gill and Gorges will be more effective when their ice time is reduced.
The Canadiens will head to Atlanta tomorrow, weather permitting, where they play against the Thrashers on Monday night.
Rocket's Three Stars
1. Andrei Markov
2. Jaroslav Halak
3. Andrei Kostitsyn
Material from wire services was used in this report.
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