When Tyler Ennis accidentally collided with Andrei Markov in the third period of a tilt between the Buffalo Sabres and Montreal Canadiens Saturday night, Habs fans saw the same twist, buckle and wince sequence that has caused so much pain in the past. Forks are about the only thing more familiar with knives than Markov’s perpetually operated-on right knee, and after coming together awkwardly with Ennis, it looked for all the world that Markov’s wrenched left knee was about to send him back to the IR.
Then a crazy thing happened. Instead of hobbling to the dressing room, Markov plunked down on the bench. During a TV timeout, he stepped on the ice and made a few hard cuts to reestablish trust with his legs. Satisfied with the results, Markov resumed his regular shift and finished the game where he’s finished many others this season: leading his team in ice time.
To wit: The NHL’s poster boy for knee injuries the past three seasons absorbed what appeared to be a debilitating hit, grimaced, gathered himself and didn’t miss a beat—that’s how well things are going for the Canadiens right now.
Montreal is the hottest team in the league over the past 10 contests, going 9-0-1 to thrust themselves into the fight for the Atlantic Division lead. Despite earning the No. 2 seed in the conference last year, few expected the Canadiens to be among the East’s premier clubs, but that’s exactly what they are—back in second spot—with more than a third of the season in the books.
Markov’s play is one of the driving forces behind the Habs’ prosperity, along with a career season from goalie Carey Price. But while the performance of those two leaders is unconditionally good, another factor in Montreal’s success represents a bit of a double-edged sword. The Canadiens get by with a balanced attack, depending largely on a score-by-committee approach. The upside is contributions come from throughout the lineup on any given night; the downside, however, is that the Habs have to survive without a game-changing forward. Playing without the kind of skater who can create goals out of thin air sometimes takes the wind out of an otherwise solid team’s sail.
For the sake of clarity, we should emphasize this discussion of dynamic talent in Montreal is limited to the forwards. Price has a huge impact on the team’s fortunes and defenceman P.K. Subban is following up his Norris Trophy season with another productive year. But even when a blueliner is as offensively gifted as Subban—the team’s leading scorer while playing on the No. 1 defence pair with Markov—he shouldn’t be counted on as a club’s top offensive catalyst.
While it’s not as though Montreal is devoid of guys who can move the needle up front, nobody is a consistent showstopper. (Right now, Tomas Plekanec is on pace to lead all Habs forwards in scoring with a 58-point season.) When Max Pacioretty is dialed in, he can score in bunches, but he’s also prone to extended droughts and, as his 11 goals and three assists indicate, the Cy Young candidate isn’t much of a playmaker. Plekanec remains far and away the team’s most effective forward overall, playing a two-way game that kind of makes him Pavel Datsyuk Light. Still, for all the craftiness and skill in Plekanec’s game, it’s tough to recall many contests in his career where you thought, wow—Plekanec was just unstoppable tonight.
Alex Galchenyuk continues to show flashes of brilliance and likely has the most high-end talent among Canadiens forwards, but the 19-year-old has also been stapled to the bench at times for obvious miscues and isn’t yet a lead horse. Brendan Gallagher brings life to any line he’s on and is equally adept at connecting on one-timers as he is whacking home rebounds. His thorny approach definitely brings a hugely valued element to the Canadiens, but doesn’t translate to prolific production.
All this makes it easy to understand why there’s been the odd rumbling out of Montreal that GM Marc Bergevin would like to add a front-line scorer. Every squad would like to add a front-line scorer, of course, but to put it in context, as vexing as it was to watch the New York Islanders go out and add Thomas Vanek when they clearly had more pressing needs, it would make a ton of sense for Bergevin to jump in on talks should a player like Vanek—or Vanek himself—find his way to the trade market again. If Montreal could reinforce its attack with a real gunner, the team could conceivably do some damage.
Besides, in a year when the East is weak and Markov’s knees are strong, anything is possible.