Markov's injury hurts bad

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With a nod to T.S. Eliot, this was the cruelest truth of the last day of April:

Canadiens defenseman Andrei Markov lay writhing in pain on the Mellon Arena ice midway through the first period of the game Friday night, and the advertisement behind him on the boards into which he had just been plowed was for an American health insurance company.

Seven months less a day earlier, Markov had hobbled off Air Canada Centre ice in Toronto, dragging a left foot whose tendon had been slashed in a goalmouth scramble by the skate of netminder Carey Price.

The Canadiens had time to deal with the absence of their All-Star defenseman. From October through December, plenty of time -- Markov missed 35 games after surgery and extensive rehabilitation.

But time is not on this hockey team's side in May.

It is not on Markov's side now.

The loss of the Canadiens' best defenseman to what appeared to be a serious injury to his right knee could dramatically change the complexion of the Eastern Conference semifinal.

Shredding Montreal's suddenly invisible penalty kill, the Penguins rolled to a 6-3 victory in Game 1of the second round. And the Penguins poured five pucks behind the recently impenetrable Jaroslav Halak, scoring their last into an empty net.

The Canadiens' goaltender was not at fault for this rude awakening. But he appeared human, a disguise he had not worn the previous three games.

A hockey series involving 40 uniformed players is not decided solely by one. Teams do not make it to the second round of the playoffs based on the performance of an individual, no matter his quality.

But there are players on the Canadiens, and there's Andrei Markov. If the Canadiens thought they had scaled a first-round peak against Washington, they might soon learn that the Capitals were just a leisurely stroll up Mount Royal.

The loss of Markov was not the only dark cloud for the Canadiens.

Very troubling was the disappearance of their magnificent penalty-kill, which yielded just one goal to the Capitals in 33 short-handed situations in Round 1. Four Penguins goals came with the man advantage, all converted much the way their coach had discussed earlier in the day.

"We've practiced all week trying to create scenarios that are tough to block," Dan Bylsma said with uncommon frankness.

"[We've been] using defensemen in different ways and forwards in the high slot to try to create scenarios where we're changing shooting lanes and getting shots to the net behind their defense."

The Canadiens set off into this series with just a single day of rest, having earned their semifinal berth by ousting the Capitals with a 2-1 win Wednesday night in Washington. The Penguins were well rested, having knocked off Ottawa six nights earlier.

Bylsma went into Game 1 saying both what his team would and wouldn't try to do against the Canadiens. They did both.

What they would not attempt, he said, was to hit Halak with more rubber than highway roadkill. That clearly did not work for the Capitals, who fired a staggering 292 shots -- an average of 41.7 per game -- at the Canadiens net in the opening round.

"We're not going to just shoot when we have good chances to score," Bylsma said interestingly.

Here's what the Penguins coach wanted to do:

"We want to get pucks into that [goal crease] area," he said. "From the side, we still want to get pucks there. Look and shoot for rebounds, not just shoot to beat [Halak] high to the glove side.

"Create a storm in the offensive zone. It's not just about the goaltender. It's about their play in [our] offensive zone, making their team play defense for a long stretch, putting them under pressure."

It was indeed the perfect storm for the Penguins. Now we will see if the Canadiens can weather the result.


Dave Stubbs is a columnist for The Gazette in Montreal. He can be reached at dstubbs@thegazette.canwest.com .


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