MONTREAL - The key to getting Montreal Canadiens top defenceman Andrei Markov back on track may have come when stocky Francis Bouillon returned from injury late in the first round of the NHL playoffs.
Markov, who was sixth among NHL defencemen in scoring during the regular season with 16 goals and 58 points, was held to one assist in the Canadiens' seven-game series victory over the Boston Bruins in the Eastern Conference quarter-finals.
Much more is expected of the slick rearguard in the second round against the Philadelphia Flyers.
And coach Guy Carbonneau said what may have turned Markov around was Bouillon's return from an ankle injury for the final two games of the Boston series, which took more than one minute per game off the over-taxed Russian's playing time.
"Everyone's human," said Carbonneau. "The more you play, the more tired you get and the more tired you get, the more mistakes you make.
"That's one reason people think his level of play went down. We were satisfied with his play. Now that Francis is back, and Josh Gorges is playing well, maybe he won't play 26 minutes per game now, and he has more support than he did at the end of the season."
Markov got the most ice time on the team during the regular season at just under 25 minutes per game, but that was bumped into the high 20s with Bouillon out of the lineup. Then it came down to its usual level when Bouillon returned.
The 29-year-old Markov plays on Montreal's top defence pair with Mike Komisarek. He also kills penalties and plays the left point on the power play, where he got 10 of his goals this season.
He was not worried about his lack of production in the opening round against the tight-checking Bruins, who held Montreal's power play to only three goals on 33 chances.
"It's not that important for me," he said. "The team game is more important now.
"If we're going to win every game and I don't score a goal or get an assist, it's better for the team."
Even the power play looked to be coming around as the Canadiens closed out the Boston series with a 5-0 win on Monday night. It struck for a goal by Andrei Kostitsyn and another by Kostitsyn that came one second after a power play expired.
"I hope our power play will be better," Markov said. "We try to play simple and create some momentum. We try to put the puck on the net and work from there."
Markov was a sixth-round pick, 162nd overall, in 1998 and is the only player drafted during the Canadiens' lean years of the late-1990s still around and making an impact with the team.
In his first six seasons with the club, he kept a very low profile off the ice, partly due to difficulties in mastering English, while steadily establishing himself as a top two-way defenceman in the NHL.
Last summer, he signed a US$23 million, four-year contract, making him the team's highest-paid player at US$5.75 million per season. He began to do more frequent media interviews this season, and he was also the first European player on the club to join his North American teammates in getting a buzz-cut for the playoffs.
Markov looked to be labouring on the ice at times against Boston, but he denied speculation that he was hiding an injury.
"Andrei is fine," said Carbonneau. "We won the first series.
"There's always a lot of pressure on the best players. Some people react differently. I don't think he had a bad series. And I think he'll just get stronger.
"For the power play, everyone will adjust. I thought the last couple of games we were moving the puck more and shooting more. The whole season, our power play was a big advantage for us. It calms the other team a little bit and it gave us a couple of wins. We have to hope it's back on track."