The Montreal Canadiens missed Andrei Markov's play at both ends of the ice throughout the defenseman's 35-game absence, and they're hoping his impressive return can help change their fortunes.
After opening their longest road trip of the season with a resounding victory that featured two Markov goals, the Canadiens will hope to bring the momentum south as they face the Atlanta Thrashers on Monday night.
Markov led the Habs in ice time and assists (52) last season while scoring a career-high 64 points, helping Montreal reach the postseason despite problems in other areas.
But the Canadiens (16-18-3) haven't looked like a playoff team this season, playing nearly all of it without Markov after a tendon in his ankle was sliced in the season opener Oct. 1.
Initially expected to be out for several months, Markov came back ahead of schedule and helped the Habs end a five-game losing streak with two power play goals in a 3-0 win at the New York Islanders on Saturday.
"He's an All-Star defenseman that has great vision and moves the puck well," Montreal coach Jacques Martin said. "It's nice to get a top player back. Those guys are hard to replace. His execution was really outstanding."
In the first of seven straight road games, Markov's presence also helped Jaroslav Halak make 40 saves for his first shutout of the season. It's unclear if Halak or Carey Price will be in net Monday after Price lost his last four outings, including a 4-3 overtime defeat at Atlanta on Dec. 12.
Ilya Kovalchuk scored on a power play 1:18 into the extra period as the Canadiens fell to 1-3-2 in their last six trips to Philips Arena. Halak has also struggled in the building, getting pulled from both of his starts there with a 9.49 goals-against average.
The Thrashers are 2-0-1 overall in this season's series, which concludes Monday.
Atlanta (18-13-3) will hope for a better defensive effort after allowing a combined 10 goals and 89 shots in its last two games. The team still beat Dallas 6-5 on Thursday behind Rich Peverley's overtime game-winner, and challenged NHL-leading New Jersey in a 5-4 loss on Saturday.
"One thing I love about this team is that we just don't quit," Thrashers coach John Anderson said. "We tried to make it exciting against the first-place team in the league. We're starting to be able to compete with these guys."
The Thrashers sit in sixth place in the Eastern Conference despite allowing 34.9 shots per game -- more than any other NHL team.
A big reason has been their offense, which ranks second to Washington with 3.2 goals per game. Kovalchuk is among the top four in the league in goals per game and points per game, while Peverley has emerged with 33 points in 34 games after the Thrashers claimed him off waivers in January.
It's unclear whether Ondrej Pavelec or Johan Hedberg will be in net for Atlanta. Pavelec has been busy after starting the last two games, but Hedberg's GAA is nearly a full goal better.
The Canadiens, originally hoping to fly to Atlanta on Saturday night, didn't arrive until Sunday evening for this game after snow kept them on Long Island.