BROSSARD, Que. — Canadiens coach Michel Therrien didn’t mince his words when he was asked to explain what led him to take veteran Andrei Markov off his top defensive pairing in the second period of Montreal’s 3-1 loss to the San Jose Sharks Tuesday.
“I didn’t like the pairing of [Andrei] Markov and [P.K.] Subban, so I decided to change it,” Therrien said.
Nathan Beaulieu moved up and played 9:05 minutes in the third period while Markov joined Tom Gilbert on the team’s third pairing and played less than six minutes in the final frame.
If it was initially thought that Therrien was just making an in-game adjustment to spark a comeback, Markov’s appearance next to Gilbert at Wednesday’s practice was somewhat of a surprise.
Was Therrien’s decision strictly punitive?
It may have had more to do with a concerted effort the Canadiens coach has been making to keep Markov fresh for the games the East-leading Canadiens will surely be playing come April.
That it came after his roughest game of the season (Markov was on the ice for all three goals the Sharks scored and his turnovers led directly to two of them) makes it slightly easier for Therrien to lessen the load for his most respected defenceman.
Montreal’s coach has been quietly managing Markov’s minutes since the start of this year’s campaign.
The Russian defenceman is down from 24:54 minutes per game last season to 22:54 minutes per game this season. After playing a taxing 2:30 per game on Montreal’s penalty kill in 2014-15, he’s down to 2:01 in 2015-16. And he’s only breached the 25-minute mark in four of Montreal’s 32 games after eclipsing it an astounding 37 times in 81 games last year.
“I’m responsible for my game and I’m going to put it behind me and be ready for the next game,” said Markov Wednesday.
Believe him. Rarely has Markov been anything short of exceptional for an extended stretch over his 878 NHL games.
When he did struggle in the past, it was due to a rash of devastating injuries suffered between 2009 and 2012. A lacerated Achilles’ Tendon followed by ACL reconstructions in consecutive seasons put a dent in an otherwise pristine career that’s seen him accumulate 511 points (3rd among Canadiens defencemen all-time).
But Markov scored 30 points in 48 games in the lockout-abridged 2013 season, and he followed it up with 43 points in 81 games in 2013-14, obliterating the notion that injuries had slowed him down.
However, the idea that age was catching up to him gained traction in last year’s Stanley Cup playoffs.
Markov, who turns 37 on Dec. 20, scored 50 points, had a plus-22 rating and finished ninth in the NHL in blocked shots (173) last season. And given all the ice-time he got, you couldn’t fault anyone for wondering if he would have anything left in the tank to elevate his game in the post-season.
As he sputtered in Game 1 of Montreal’s opening-round series with the Ottawa Senators, the doubts increased in volume.
After the Canadiens were dispatched in six games by the Tampa Bay Lightning in Round 2, the notion that Markov had been running on exhaust fumes could not be silenced.
In 12 playoff games, the Canadiens’ elder statesman had one goal, one assist and was minus-1.
It can’t be easy for Therrien to diminish Markov’s role now. The two came up together — one as a rookie head coach and the other as a rookie player in Montreal — in 2000.
He affectionately refers to him as ‘the General’.
But the process Therrien is currently undertaking with Markov is in the aim of not having to bust him down to ‘Private’ when the playoffs roll around.
It’s worth it for Therrien, even if it means feeding the current perception that he’s unhappy with Markov’s play next to Subban.