PITTSBURGH, Pa. – The Montreal Canadiens rely a great deal on defenceman Andrei Markov to make their offence go, probably about as much as the Pittsburgh Penguins count on centre Jordan Staal to stabilize their defensive game.
But with both those vital players getting hurt in Pittsburgh’s 6-3 Game 1 victory, this Eastern Conference semi-final series may turn on which team can best absorb the loss of a key piece to their respective puzzles.
The Canadiens confirmed Saturday that Markov returned to Montreal immediately after Game 1 and is out indefinitely with a lower-body injury, while the Penguins also announced that Staal is officially day-to-day with a cut tendon on the top of his foot.
Canadiens head coach Jacques Martin said the team will have to collectively fill the void left by Markov’s injury. But he specifically pointed to Roman Hamrlik, who became Montreal’s de-facto No. 1 defenceman when Markov missed 35 games with a lacerated tendon in his foot at the start of the year.
“In Markov’s absence a guy like Roman Hamrlik raised his game, and we expect the same thing now,” Martin said Saturday at the team hotel as the Canadiens were given a day off from practice. “Roman can fill that role.”
A direct challenge like that from the coach comes as a bit of a surprise considering Hamrlik was benched for practically the entire third period in Game 5 of the first round against the Washington Capitals. He played fewer than 15 minutes in both Games 6 and 7, but Hamrlik logged over 19 minutes against the Penguins on Friday.
“It’s a nice compliment, but it’s also big pressure, especially in the playoffs,” Hamrlik said. “I’m going to have lots of ice time. I just need to play simple and move my feet.”
While Hamrlik will likely fill a lot of Markov’s 5-on-5 and penalty kill minutes, rookie P.K. Subban will probably be given more of an opportunity to make his mark on the power play after playing nearly 20 minutes in Game 1.
“He’s a young defenceman that brings some good elements because of his speed, his mobility and his offensive skills,” Martin said. “I think he can give us a hand.”
For the Penguins, the burden of replacing Staal could fall on any number of players like Max Talbot, Craig Adams or Mark Letestu, and even Sidney Crosby might be given more defensive responsibilities, head coach Dan Bylsma said.
“Jordan was a guy we liked to put on most occasions against their best line or their best centreman, so that may shift a little bit,” Bylsma said after Penguins practice. “It will change our match-ups a little bit, but it won’t drastically change guys’ roles on our team.”
The loss of both players will be felt most on special teams.
Markov is Montreal’s power play quarterback while Staal is Pittsburgh?s top penalty killer, so in a sense, the two injuries may very well cancel each other out.
“We’re dealing with the same thing, and that’s the bottom line,” Crosby said. “That’s the way the playoffs work. I’m sure they don’t want anyone feeling sorry for them, and we don’t want anyone feeling sorry for us.”
The Canadiens had a pedestrian 14-20-3 record without Markov this season, but Martin points out that other injuries during that period to defencemen Ryan O?Byrne and Hal Gill compounded the situation.
The Penguins have no real frame of reference to draw on when it comes to a Staal injury because he?s played 358 straight games since being scratched his rookie year four seasons ago with flu-like symptoms.
“He’s irreplaceable,” said Talbot, who finished Game 1 in Staal’s centre spot. “He does so many things on the penalty kill, he is the best third line centre in the league. He always plays against the other team’s top line, he plays on the power play, on the penalty kill. It won’t be up to one player to replace him, everyone will have to pitch in a little more.”
The Canadiens did not talk too much about how Staal’s absence will affect their game plan, but the Penguins were quite open about what Markov’s injury will mean in Game 2.
Bylsma said a big priority for the Penguins was to set up deep in the Canadiens zone and play a strong cycle game below the goal line to tire out the Montreal defence and create scoring chances.
With Markov not there, the coach’s message will be even more emphatic.
“Now it’s without one of their best defencemen, if not their best defenceman in that regard,” Bylsma said. “It just emphasizes more how we need to play to get into our game. At times we did last game, but we feel we can do a better job of that.”