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Top Shelf: Markov injury leaves Habs with huge hole

Andrei Markov was drafted in the sixth round (162nd overall) by the Canadiens in 1998. (Photo by Michael Martin/NHLI via Getty Images)

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Andrei Markov was drafted in the sixth round (162nd overall) by the Canadiens in 1998. (Photo by Michael Martin/NHLI via Getty Images)

Are you getting a sense for how much the Montreal Canadiens miss their best player yet?

In two games since Andrei Markov was knocked out of the lineup with what’s believed to be a knee injury, Montreal has zero points and zero power play goals.

In fact, the play that resulted in Markov’s injury led to the first man advantage the Canadiens had without him during Montreal’s 6-2 win over Toronto last Saturday. With Mikhail Grabovski having been assessed a boarding penalty for his hit on Markov, the Habs power play went to work and promptly coughed up a shorthanded goal just 23 seconds into the man advantage.

Not a good omen.

It doesn’t help that Mathieu Schneider – co-quarterback on the Habs power play – is apparently out for the rest of the year after sustaining a shoulder injury in the same costly win over the Leafs.

Everybody connected with the Habs must feel fully justified in a ‘why us?’ cry, but they’d be well advised not to direct their self-pity down the standings in the direction of Buffalo. Sabres fans might get a little snippy when they point out their team lost one of the league’s best snipers in Thomas Vanek and top goalies in Ryan Miller for extended periods of time during the stretch run. If not for that fact, it’s likely Buffalo, not Montreal, would still be in position for a post-season berth.

Still, losing Markov – for three weeks it’s being reported – is undeniably a vibrant sting for Montreal, simply because he’s been so good all season. That’s not a sentence that could be typed about many Montrealers this year; while numerous other talented Habs have disappointed, Markov was great from start to early finish.

“He’s been our best player the whole year,” said Chris Higgins prior to Markov’s injury. “He’s one of the most skilled defensemen out there. If he’s not the most patient player I’ve ever seen back on the blueline, he’s (close).

“Sometimes he doesn’t make a move, he just out waits guys and you’ve got to have a lot of balls to be doing that toe-dragging at your own blueline, but he seems to have no problem getting away with it. He’s a pleasure to have on the team and play with because he’s just an amazing player.”

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For Montreal to benefit from Markov’s majesty again this year, the Canadiens first need to nail down a playoff spot, then hang in with a team that will be far superior to it for five or six games in the first round.

There’s absolutely nobody who can fill the void Markov left on the back end, meaning the power play is going to have to muck it out for more goals and the Canadiens, as a whole, are going to need to be more defensively responsible to compensate for a certain drop in offensive production.

All the attributes Higgins mentioned helped Markov post 64 points in 78 games this year, a total that will ultimately rank second league-wide in defensemen scoring.

And while Markov lacks the physical presence to be a true No. 1 stud defender, Schneider said it’s easy to overlook how proficient Markov is in the defensive zone.

“I don’t think he gets enough credit for his play in his end, playing both sides of the puck,” said Schneider before his injury. “He certainly should be a top Norris candidate this year, without a doubt.

“He hasn’t only done it on the power play, he’s done it 5-on-5 and he’s got to be in the top two or three in Norris voting the way I see it.”

And that’s why life without him has been so difficult for the Habs.

Ryan Dixon is a writer and copy editor for The Hockey News magazine, the co-author of the book Hockey's Young Guns and a regular contributor to THN.com. His blog appears Wednesdays and his column, Top Shelf, appears Fridays.

For more great profiles, news and views from the world of hockey, subscribe to The Hockey News magazine.

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