MONTREAL - Andrei Markov returned to the Montreal lineup on Saturday night but the Bell Centre crowd was wondering where he was when it seemed the Canadiens needed him the most.
Coach Jacques Martin elected to keep his top defenceman and point man on the bench as the Canadiens, trailing by a goal, held a 5-on-3 advantage for one minute 25 seconds to open the second period of what turned out to be a 3-1 loss to the Florida Panthers.
Instead, rookie P.K. Subban was the lone defenceman while left-winger Michael Cammalleri played the other point with three forwards up front on an opportunity that went for nought as the Canadiens failed to beat Florida goaltender Tomas Vokoun.
"We have shooters in Subban and Cammalleri and we had (Tomas) Plekanec, (Brian) Gionta and Andrei Kostitsyn, and I think we had chances but it just didn't go in," said Martin.
Still, Markov got 23:03 of ice time, second on the team to his defence partner Subban's 24:49, in his first game since he suffered torn knee ligaments that required surgery during the opening game of the second round of playoffs. He ended up missing Montreal's last 11 post-season games and the first 10 of the regular season, as well as missing training camp.
The 31-year-old looked to be off his usual timing on in his passing, but he had two glittering scoring chances late in the game that Vokoun stopped.
"I knew it was going to be hard and the first period was tough for me, but I felt much better in the second and third," said Markov, who had five of Montreal's 41 shots. "It's not easy to come back from a long-term (injury).
"I was lost a little bit. It's much different than practice. The intensity is very high, so the first period was a little tough."
When asked about not playing on the 5-on-3, Markov said "ask the coach."
"He's a great player," Plekanec said of Markov. "His first pass is unbelievable.
"We're definitely stronger with him and he'll make us even better when he's in game shape. He was great tonight."
With Markov's return, the Canadiens are fully healthy. His return bumped Alexandre Picard from the lineup.