By Larry Wigge
There were about a million things running through Andrei Markov mind. And why wouldn't there be.
The what ifs of the 34-year-old defensemen from Voskresenk, Russia, likely are running rampant is his cranium, no doubt. If you were given the power to change one thing in your life with the snap of your fingers, what would it be?
Or, maybe Markov, who has spent all of his 12 seasons with the Montreal Canadiens, would rather look at it as been a life of, 'Oh wells' rather than a life of 'What ifs.'
This is not a story about life-cut-short-through-injuries. It is not like Gale Sayers, Darryl Stingley, Bill Walton, Bo Jackson, Sterling Sharpe, Mark Prior, Yao Ming or Grant Hill. It's a tear-jerking comeback story. One that reminds one of his unblinking blue-eyed veteran with the shaved head and determined jaw and the laser-like shot from the blue line.
In his second game this season, Markov unleashed two of those rocket shots in Montreal's 4-1 victory over the Florida Panthers. Or two nights later, when he used his mobility to tap a rebound home on a power play in a 4-1 win over the Washington Capitals. All three of Markov's goals were on Montreal's once feared power play.
It brought back memories of third season -- a 13-goal effort. Maybe even 2007-08, when he poured in 16 goals. Or 2008-09 when he added another 12 goals.
Markov's two goals snapped a long drought for the oft-injured defenseman. His last goal came on November 10, 2010, against the Vancouver Canucks, but because of a serious knee injury since that time. Still, after waiting 26 months between goals, Markov got two in a span of 15:07.
"What do you mean finally?" he responded incredulously, when he was asked about ending his drought.
He's not as fast as he once was, but he's still a highly intelligent playmaker and defender who's able to snuff out opposing rushes before they materialize and put pucks on teammates sticks they never saw coming. A very skilled player who thinks the game so well.
"He was a real leader, a general on our defense," coach Michel Therrien said. "The way that he controlled the game, the way he was able to shut down big players on the other side, his attitude, the way he plays the game, he was a real leader out there."
He was limited to 45 games in 2009-10 and seven and 13 games the last two seasons. That's just 65 games over the last three seasons. No wonder the Habs are happy to have to back.
"Without him in your lineup, it's completely different back there," said captain Brian Gionta. "It just shows what we've been missing.
"He's a very special player."
Markov is now physically able to get to where his brain and instinct tell him to go.
"It's great to have him on my side finally, he commands the ice," said winger Colby Armstrong. "Play stands still when he controlling the ice. He freezes the whole game."
Life has been like a series of comebacks for Markov. The last three seasons have preparing to play at a top level -- only to be cut short.
When you get to be 30-something and up you learn to practice harder in the offseason. Get yourself into shape the whole offseason. For the past three years, Markov worked on additional treatment on the St. Henri studio doorstep of Scott Livingston, a certified athletic therapist and the Canadiens’ former strength and conditioning co-ordinator.
Livingston performed what he called the "back-end rehab program" for Markov. Included in that was a reconditioning and conditioning program and lung-torching cardio that included intense PowerWatts cycling sessions with a dynamic group of elite amateur and professional athletes, including skiers, hockey players and Olympic diver Alex Despatie.
"Basically," Markov said, "I found the right person who helped me a lot and put me back in shape."
Markov was wondering what if about then.
"When I step on the ice, I don't try to think about any health problems. No way," Markov said. "For me, it's a hockey rule: 'If you step on the ice, you have to give 100 per cent every time, whether you're healthy or not.' "
A glass half filled theory -- with promise remaining of the light at the end of the tunnel -- rather than a what if.
Under the radar is the phrase most often used to describe Andrei Markov.
He's 6-foot, 207 pounds but plays like a small, but tough defenseman. He was a sixth-round pick, 162nd overall, in the 1998 NHL Entry Draft. Well down the list, but ...
Montreal's power play has waned in recent years without the lethal shots, passes with eyes to get to Canadiens forward. Gone is Sheldon Souray, who once converted 26 man-advantage tallies in 2006-07, as well as Mark Streit, who also struck fear into opponents.
Markov's shot remain dangerous. Asked how small the net looks from the blue line, Andrei said, "Actually, it looks small."
If the Montreal Canadiens can keep Andrei Markov healthy prospects look good that the fearsome power play can make its mark.
For now, you can forget stories about Gale Sayers or Bill Walton or Bo Jackson or Mark Prior or Yao Ming.
Markov's story is no longer a what if tale.