MONTREAL – Marc-Andre Bergeron says his thundering shot has always been there and he has no idea where it comes from.
But it moved the Montreal Canadiens to sign him to a US$750,000, one-year contract as a free agent when two of their rearguards, Andrei Markov and Ryan O’Byrne, were injured in the first week of the NHL regular season.
And now he is putting it to work in the playoffs as the eighth-seeded Canadiens try to upset the first place overall Washington Capitals in the opening round.
”It’s always been part of it,” the Trois-Rivieres, Que., native said Monday. ”I hit the ball pretty good when I play baseball and it’s the same with golf, so I guess it’s my timing or whatever.
”I don’t know what it is, but it works. There’s a lot of practice behind it for accuracy. But people ask me about that and I don’t know what to answer. It’s just something I have.”
It has earned the 29-year-old a prime spot on the right point on the power play, filling the hole that was left when Mark Streit signed as a free agent with the New York Islanders ahead of the 2008-09 season, and it helped restore the Canadiens’ place among the best in the NHL with the man advantage.
Montreal, with a 21.8 per cent success rate, was second only to Washington’s 25.2 per cent this season.
Among Bergeron’s 13 goals and 34 points this season, seven goals and 22 points came on the power play, second on the team to Tomas Plekanec’s 24 points.
Montreal has lived off its power play ? and goaltending ? for much of the decade, mostly because of multi-skilled playmaker Markov on the left point. Before Bergeron and Streit, it was Sheldon Souray firing cannon shots from the right side.
”He’s an elite defenceman and he makes everyone around him better,” said Bergeron about Markov.
After Markov went down in the season-opener in Toronto with a severed tendon in his foot that would keep him out for 35 games, the Canadiens signed Bergeron on Oct. 6, sent him to AHL Hamilton for conditioning and brought him up on Oct. 18.
He was a boost to the power play, but his defensive play was often awkward. Rather than scratch him and lose his power play contribution, Jacques Martin opted to use him the way the Canadiens employed Streit before him ? on left wing at even strength.
It was a new experience for a player who was Canada’s major junior defenceman of the year in 2001 with Shawinigan, but it beat watching games from the press box.
“It was a chance for me to see another part of the game,” he said. “I learned a lot from it.
”It’s just another chord to my guitar I guess. It was fun. I was not as comfortable as when I play defence. I couldn’t use my reads and anticipation as much, but at the same time I was just glad to be out there.”
When O’Byrne had a bad game late in the regular season, Bergeron was not only put back on defence, he was paired with Markov. That duo now leads the Canadiens in ice time in the post-season.
”The priority was his ability to help on the power play,” said Martin. ”He got an opportunity to go back there and he did a great job.
”When you’re in the playoffs, you want to go with your best and that’s why he’s there.”
Bergeron missed 15 games with an injury this season or he likely would have beaten his career bests of 15 goals and 35 points set with his original team, the Edmonton Oilers, in 2005-06. That year Edmonton went to the Stanley Cup final, although Bergeron was injured in the opening game and missed the rest of the series against the champion Carolina Hurricanes.
The following season, he was dealt to the New York Islanders for Denis Grebeshkov. He was sent to the Anaheim Ducks late in the 2007-08 campaign and spent last season with the Minnesota Wild.
Now he has the chance to play in his home province, only an hour’s drive from his hometown, and is enjoying the moment.
”It’s been an exciting year,” he said. ”I’m just excited to have the chance to be out there. I want to be on the ice as much as I can and my coach is giving me that chance now.”