Andrei Markov and Alexei Emelin celebrate their first period goal against the Ottawa Senators with team mates during an NHL game at Canadian Tire Centre on April 4, 2014 in Ottawa, Canada. Source: Getty Images / Fotobank
In 1972, the Soviet national hockey team stunned Canada 7-3 in the opener of the historic eight-game Summit Series in Montreal. In 2014, two star Russian defensemen are raising Montreal’s hopes of winning its first Stanley Cup since 1993.
Times have certainly changed. But what makes Andrei Markov and Alexei Emelin such valuable contributors to the Canadiens, vying for top spot in the NHL’s Eastern Conference, is their unfailing consistency.
Coach Michel Therrien’s club went on a tear with seven wins and one loss to start the 2014-15 campaign. They then stumbled a little, but snapped a three-game losing streak with a 2-1 shootout victory at Buffalo on Nov. 5.
“The past few games haven’t been great, but overall we’ve played OK,” said Markov. “Of course we need to work on a few things and keep getting better every day.”
Markov’s assist on Montreal’s 1-0 goal against Buffalo gave him sole possession of third place in all-time scoring among Canadiens defensemen with 448 career points. The 35-year-old Voskresensk native surpassed Doug Harvey (447), who won seven Norris Trophies as the NHL’s best defenseman between 1955 and 1962. Markov still trails 1970s greats Larry Robinson (883) and Guy Lapointe (572).
Emelin, meanwhile, has surprisingly matched Markov’s six points in 12 games so far. The Togliatti-born fourth-year NHLer is better-known for his physical play, sometimes reminiscent of ex-Detroit Red Wing Vladimir Konstantinov, than for his scoring prowess. His stony-faced, relentless approach to hockey has earned the respect of teammates like P.K. Subban, who won the 2013 Norris Trophy.
“He’s a competitive guy,” said Subban of Emelin. “He’s almost like a machine. The guy takes a hit, blocks a shot, throws hits. He’s a warrior out there.”
Emelin made headlines during the 2014 playoffs when Montreal marched to the conference finals before losing in six games to the New York Rangers.
In the second round, the former AK Bars Kazan star clashed repeatedly with hulking power forward Milan Lučić of the Boston Bruins. After Boston was eliminated in Game Seven, Lučić was so incensed during the post-game handshake that he threatened to “kill” Emelin this season.
Markov, happily, has managed to stay healthy so far for the third season in a row. The 14-year NHL veteran was plagued with injuries between 2009-10 and 2011-12, but has bounced back.
Unfortunately, the same couldn’t be said for another NHL star, Sergei Gonchar, this year. Gonchar, 40, and Markov have represented Russia together since the 2000 IIHF World Championship. However, the Dallas Stars legend from Chelyabinsk was sidelined with a fractured ankle in exhibition play, which has kept him from becoming the first Russian defenseman to tally 800 NHL points (he’s currently at 797).
Gonchar finally made his season debut against Los Angeles on Nov. 4.
“He’s an amazing person and a great team player,” Markov said. “I’m happy for him that he is about to reach that 800-point milestone and I wish the best for him in the future. I hope he can reach 1,600 points! When we played together for the Russian national team, it was an honor to play with him – he’s a true professional.”
Both Markov and Emelin were part of the Russian Olympic team that lost 3-1 to Finland in the quarter-finals in Sochi in February. While memories of that loss remain bitter, it hasn’t dampened Markov’s enthusiasm about Olympic participation.
“Everyone knows that the Olympics are one of the most prestigious tournaments in hockey, and it only comes once every four years,” said Markov. “All of the best players play, and of course you want the best players on the team to represent your country. On top of that, you have so much fun playing at the Olympics, and you get a huge amount of experience out of it.”
Emelin has a good shot at representing Russia again at the 2018 Winter Games in PyeongChang, South Korea. He will be 31 then. Even the older Markov hasn’t given up hope: “I not only want to play in the Olympics – I have many more ambitions in hockey. That is why I have to work hard and see what the future holds for me.”
For now, the two defensemen must focus on bringing the Stanley Cup back to North America’s most legendary hockey city. Montreal has won the title a record-setting 24 times since 1916.
Canadiens fans have reason for hope, even though six of the last eight Cup champions have come from the Western Conference. When Markov and Subban shine on the power play, Montreal’s offense goes to another level. Last year, they combined for 46 points with a man advantage.
Also, factor in the fear that Emelin’s hitting strikes into opposing forwards, the strong goaltending of 2014 Olympic gold medalist Carey Price, and a balanced attack led by forwards Max Pacioretty, Tomáš Plekanec, and Alex Galchenyuk. The latter, now in his third NHL season, brings a unique blend of Soviet-style finesse and North American grit – he’s the son of former Soviet national team player Alexander Galchenyuk.
The Canadiens have elected not to name a captain for 2014-15, and it is rare for clubs without captains to take the Cup. The last time that happened was with the 1972 Boston Bruins.
Yet if Markov and Emelin continue to deliver the goods for Montreal, this could turn out to be arguably the most rewarding NHL season for Russian teammates on defense since Konstantinov and Vyacheslav Fetisov won the 1997 Cup with Detroit.