About last night …

Have the Canadiens ever made a better sixth-round draft choice?

Andrei Markov was spectacular last night: 29:21 of ice time, including 11:22 on the power play.

Five shots on goal, plus three that went wide and six that were blocked.

He was on the ice for four goals – including both of Tampa Bay’s, but it was that kind of crazy game.

Markov was part of a defensive effort that held Vincent Lecavalier and Martin St. Louis to one shot each.

He is the Canadiens best and most valuable player, the steadiest and starriest member of what is otherwise a mediocre defence corps.

If it weren’t for Andrei Markov, your Montreal Canadiens might be in the John Tavares Derby with the Lightning and a few other bottom-dwellers.

Instead, they’re in eighth place after a W that should have been a lot easier.

 

I hadn’t watched a hockey game from the Bell Centre pressbox until Habs Inside/Out was launched in October, 2006. At my first game and for every one since, I’ve been at Seat 39, overlooking the blueline the Canadiens defend for two periods.

 

I like it there, as opposed to the centre-ice Gazette positions occupied by Red Fisher and Pat Hickey, because I love watching defencemen.

 

I think Bobby Orr was the best player ever, a master of hockey’s most difficult position. Larry Robinson, Serge Savard, Guy Lapointe, Rod Langway and Chris Chelios number among my all-time favourite Canadiens.

 

Markov doesn’t hit like Robinson. He’s not a brutal ass-kicker like Chelios.

 

But he’s a superb skater and passer – a converted centre back in Russia – with superb vision and highly refined offensive skills.

 

And unlike too many of his confrères, Markov never panics, no matter what the game situation.

 

The fact that Markov is eight points clear of Alex Kovalev on top of the team scoring list says a lot about what kind of season the Canadiens have had. The only other defenceman leading his team in scoring is Mark Streit.

 

(Let’s pause now to contemplate what might have been if Bob Gainey offered Streit a lousy $2.8 million in late 2007.)

 

The only D-man in the league with more points than Markov is Mike Green. The Capitals’ young star is also plus-24, while Markov is minus-1.

 

But again, it’s been that kind of season.

 

In his postgame remarks, Bob Gainey called Markov an "elite player" – neglecting to add "the only one we’ve got … for now."

 

Mr. Elite is the highest paid Canadien at $5.75 million (Wade Redden is making $8 million this season) and is signed through 2010-’11. He’ll still be around as Carey Price blossoms and the young defence studs – Ryan McDonagh, P.K. Subban, Yannick Weber – start arriving.

 

Crucially, Markov will be around next season, when we should all hope and pray the Canadiens can lure Alexei Yemelin out of Russia.

 

OK, have I raved on enough about number 79?

 

There were a few other guys on the ice last night, and they all played splendidly.

 

The ridiculous final minutes notwithstanding – and what a crusher a regulation L would have been – the Canadiens annihilated Tampa Bay.

 

Through two periods, the Lightning had eight shots. Their 19 were the fewest the Canadiens have allowed this season.

 

At the other end of the ice, Karri Ramo was facing a barrage that included 36 shots on goal, 20 that missed the net and 34 blocks by his TB teammates.

 

That is 90 chances – most dominant offensive-zone puck possession the Canadiens have enjoyed this season.

 

Saku Koivu’s dramatic OT goal gave the Canadiens momentum heading into what will be a tough game against Buffalo tomorrow night and a tougher one when the young, scary Blackhawks are at the Bell Centre on Tuesday.

 

The Canadiens aren’t out of the woods, but there’s a glimmer of light in the distance.

 

The team finally has a number one line – and you wonder what might have been had Guy Carbonneau put Koivu and the two Alexes together in October. Watching Alex Tanguay make passes is almost worth the price of admission.

 

Lines centred by Glen Metropolit (who can skate and has been a pleasant surprise) and Energizer Bunny Maxim Lapierre did a superb job on Lecavalier.

 

Guillaume Latendresse, who’s terrific with Lapierre and Tom Kostopoulos, channelled Andrei Kostitsyn (out with the flu) and turned on afterburners we didn’t know he had to score on a spectacular wraparound. No less spectacular was Gui!’s check on behemoth Evgeni Artyukhin, who had 10 HITS for TB.

 

Christopher Higgins continues to shine as a defensive forward and penalty-killer.

 

The PP scored only once but displayed great passing and puck control. Tampa Bay took nine penalties to two for the Canadiens – a good indicator of how the game went. Mathieu Schneider played too many minutes, 21:36, for a geezer; but half was on the power play, where he’s less ikely to have an on-ice coronary.

 

The Canadiens looked like a playoff team and the Lightning looked like what they are, a woeful franchise with sketchy ownership and a superstar whom more and more people are expecting to see traded before the draft.

 

Bring on the Sabres for another must-win.

 

 

 


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