BROSSARD, Que. – By all appearances, Hal Gill will be out and Jaroslav Spacek will be back in the Montreal Canadiens lineup when they try to stave off being eliminated from the NHL playoffs by the Pittsburgh Penguins.
But the situation on the Montreal blue-line was as unpredictable as the snow falling outside their suburban practice facility Sunday. And it didn’t get any clearer when two defencemen thought to be out of the playoffs for good?Andrei Markov and Paul Mara?went for a light skate with a trainer.
Coach Jacques Martin gave no definite answers about any of them, but it appears Spacek will play in Game 6 on Monday night at the Bell Centre. Gill is doubtful while Markov and Mara are almost certainly out of the question.
Gill suffered a cut to the back of his leg three minutes into the third period of the Penguins’ 2-1 victory Saturday night when he was accidentally stepped on by Chris Kunitz after a fall. He stayed overnight in Pittsburgh to receive medical treatment and was to return Sunday.
Prior to leaving for Montreal, though, Gill told reporters he was hopeful about playing Monday night.
But if Gill can’t suit up, that would deprive the Canadiens not only of their biggest body but of a veteran who has emerged as their top shutdown defenceman in the postseason.
Gill and partner Josh Gorges were given much of the credit for containing Alex Ovechkin and the Washington Capital’s high powered attack in the first round of playoffs and keeping Penguins captain Sidney Crosby without any goals through the first five games of the second round.
”It’s a big loss, but we’ve done it all year where someone has to step in,” said veteran forward Brian Gionta. ”Someone will have to take over that responsibility in the playoffs of being that top shut down guy.”
Should Spacek return, he will likely go back to being paired with Roman Hamrlik, which was Montreal’s shutdown duo during the regular season. If Gill can’t play, rookie P.K. Subban is the likely candidate to move in with Gorges, while Ryan O’Byrne and Marc-Andre Bergeron, who see limited ice time, will probably be kept together.
Martin said there were no plans to call up a defenceman from AHL Hamilton.
The defending Stanley Cup-champion Penguins lead the best-of-seven series 3-2 and can advance to the conference final for a third straight year with a win. Montreal, which rallied from a 3-1 series deficit to beat Washington, will try to force a Game 7 to be played Wednesday night in Pittsburgh.
Spacek has been out since Game 4 of the Washington series with a virus, which he said was a recurrence of the one that kept him out for three games near the end of the regular season. He wouldn’t say exactly what it was, but it is believed to be an inner ear problem.
”It was a kind of virus that hit me in the wrong spot and it’s getting really good right now and that’s the reason I’m getting close (to returning),” said Spacek, who spoke to reporters for the first time since he went out of the lineup.
Information about injuries or illness is hard to come by from any team or player during the playoffs, but Spacek was particularly guarded about his. He said that outside of the team, the only person who knew what he had was his wife.
And he added to the mystery by calling it ”an unusual injury?it doesn’t happen to too many players. It came from something I had before.
”I know a couple of players who retired from what I had. That scared me.”
Former Edmonton defenceman Kevin Lowe and ex-Washington goalie Jim Carey are among players who retired due to inner ear trouble, if that indeed is what Spacek had.
Markov, the Canadiens top defenceman, reportedly suffered a torn ACL in is right knee in the opening game of the Pittsburgh series and was expected to be gone for the season. But a report this week said Markov was trying out a knee braceto see if he could come back.
He wore a track suit on to the ice and under the trainer’s supervision tried putting weight on both knees, pushing off with both feet and then skating in leisurely circles. He didn’t look terribly uncomfortable but Martin said Markov’s status remains ”indefinite.”
Mara, who had what was called season-ending shoulder surgery late in the regular season, wore full equipment, but didn’t skate hard either.
Whatever the lineup looks like when the puck drops, it will be a tough test for the Canadiens. But they were widely written off during the Washington series and found a way, largely through stellar goaltending from Jaroslav Halak, to upset a Washington team that finished first in the NHL’s overall standings.
Now they’ll have to try to stay alive again.
”We’re happy to be coming back to play in front of our fans,” said Martin. ”We’ve been playing desperate hockey for two months.
”It’s the fourth time we’ll play an elimination game. We’ll be ready.”
The Canadiens held a team meeting and optional skate. After Markov and Mara came off, Spacek, Maxim Lapierre, Sergei Kostitsyn, Ben Maxwell and goalie Carey Price skated. Still later, Price and centre Glen Metropolit skated without equipment, shooting pucks for fun.