MONTREAL – The Montreal Canadiens’ power play is back and now all the club has to do is get other teams to start taking more penalties.
The unit languished near the bottom of the league in power-play success early in the season after point man Andrei Markov was injured. But Montreal is back atop the 30-team NHL in power-play efficiency at 24.6 per cent.
Montreal has been especially strong on the road, having scored on 33.8 per cent of its opportunities.
It’s easy to attribute the surge to Markov’s return 11 games ago from a severed tendon in his foot. He suffered the injury in the opening game of the regular season when he got tangled up with goalie Carey Price in the crease.
In Markov’s first three games back, all on the road, Montreal went 8-for-13 on the power play.
But left-winger Mike Cammalleri said Tuesday the special teams unit actually got it going just before Markov returned when it scored six times on 13 tries in four games from Dec. 8-14.
“A little before Marky got back we got pretty hot,” said the Canadiens goal-scoring leader with 20.
Markov only cemented the return to form.
“I’m not trying to downplay his presence because he’s amazing out there,” Cammalleri added. “Having a defenceman who can quarterback a power play – all the top power plays have that.
“You saw it for years with Nik Lidstrom, Chris Pronger, Rob Blake. That’s how you have a top power play. And Marky’s definitely one of the best, if not the best, at it.”
A problem is that the Canadiens are last in the NHL in drawing penalties. They have been on the power play only 138 times in 47 games. The next-lowest team is Boston at 153, while Pittsburgh, which has the league’s second-worst unit with a 14.3 success rate, has had the most with 196.
But Montreal has given opponents the most power-play chances with 198. Happily for them, their penalty killing ranks a healthy seventh at 84.3 per cent.
“It’s something we’ve talked about,” said Cammalleri. “Of late it’s been a little better for us.
“I think it’s more of an overall game and attitude that’s going to help draw more penalties, and to focus more on details for not talking them.”
With Markov on the left point, Montreal has been at or near the top in power-play scoring for the last several years. Most of the forwards have changed, and there has been a succession of shooters on the right point, but the Russian veteran’s vision and creativity are the constant.
It started when big-shooting Sheldon Souray was on the right point and had 26 goals in 2006-07 before jumping to the Edmonton Oilers as a free agent.
Then Mark Streit took over and had a career year of 62 points in 2007-08 before he signed a hefty free-agent contract with the New York Islanders.
The power play dipped last season until the Canadiens picked up veteran Mathieu Schneider late in the campaign. But he then joined the Vancouver Canucks last summer.
The Canadiens looked dead in the water when Markov was injured, but it prompted general manager Bob Gainey to sign free-agent Marc-Andre Bergeron on Oct. 6. He has turned out to be just the shooter the team missed.
Bergeron has had some awful games in his own zone on defence, but his cannon shot is a huge weapon on the power play. And with a string of injured defencemen now back, coach Jacques Martin uses Bergeron on left wing on the fourth line at even strength and on the right point of the first power-play unit.
In 40 games as a Canadien, he has 10 goals and 13 assists. Markov has 13 points in 12 games this season.
Centre Tomas Plekanec said getting Markov back was a bonus, but the improvement began before that with a power play built that emphasized Bergeron’s shot.
“When he shot it at the right time, they started covering him and it opened up seams for myself and Cammy and Andrei (Kostitsyn),” said Plekanec. “We need to keep doing that – make sure the other teams know we have other players to work on.”
Losing Kostitsyn to a knee injury that required surgery has had Montreal’s top line in a funk of late. But it has also hurt the power play, which is 2-for-9 in the last three games.
The Canadiens were back on the ice after two days off following their overtime loss to New Jersey on Saturday night. Montreal had played a whopping 17 games in December, including seven in a row on the road from Dec. 19-31.
Defenceman Ryan O’Byrne was back on the ice after spending 10 days back home in Victoria attending to a family matter he didn’t elaborate on.
“It’s just a member of my immediate family – they’re not doing too well and I needed to go back and spend some time with them,” he said. “I think I’ll leave it at that right now.”
Winger Sergei Kostitsyn was not back from his ankle injury and Martin said he likely won’t be available for the rest of this week, which includes home games Thursday against Dallas and Saturday against Ottawa and a road game Sunday against the Rangers in New York.