Habs get Markov and Desharnais back; Nesterov to make debut

Montreal defenseman Andrei Markov will return from injury tonight at home to Buffalo. And to make his return even more worthy of watching, he’ll be paired with Nikita Nesterov, who will be making his Habs debut after Thursday’s trade with Tampa Bay.

Markov, 38, has not played since Dec. 17 due to a groin injury. The Canadiens went a modest 9-7-3 in the 19 games without him, and they went into the All-Star break by getting badly outplayed in a 3-1 loss to the resurgent Islanders.

With Markov coming off IR, the Canadiens yesterday placed defenseman Zach Redmond on waivers. Redmond cleared today and was assigned to AHL St. John’s.

Forward David Desharnais (knee) will also return tonight against the Sabres. He hasn’t played since Dec. 6.

Montreal holds a comfortable 7-point lead atop the Atlantic Division, but will want to get back on track after sliding into the break on a 4-5-1 stretch.

The Habs still have a couple of key injuries. Alex Galchenyuk (knee) may return Thursday, but Brendan Gallagher (hand) is out a while longer.

After a tough month, it’s win-and-you’re-in time for Flames goalies


Glen Gulutzan is taking the starting-goalie decision out of his own hands. After a tough month for both Calgary Flames netminders, it’s win-and-you’re-in time for Brian Elliott and Chad Johnson.

From the Calgary Sun:

If the Flames score a victory, the starting goalie keeps the crease for another night. And if they lose, his partner-in-pads gets the next nod.

“It brings out competition, it brings out focus and it puts some pressure on them, too,” Gulutzan said after Monday’s late-afternoon practice at the Saddledome, their return to the rink after the three-day getaway. “Both guys, I know, can handle pressure. I’ve done that before in teams that I’ve coached where I’ve had two good goalies, and they like to push each other for it. I think that’s a good thing for our group right now.”

As mentioned, January was a tough month for both goalies. Elliott’s season-long struggles continued, as he went 2-3-1 with an. 892 save percentage. Johnson, so strong early on, also had issues. His record was 3-4-0 with an .887 save percentage.

In reality, the new plan won’t change much. Gulutzan has been riding the hottest hand for much of the season, and the Flames 1) don’t have a back-to-back until later in the month, and 2) get their bye week halfway through the month.

In other words, it’s not like fatigue will be a factor. It’s simply a motivational tactic, an effort to get one of the goalies in a groove.

Elliott will get the nod tomorrow at home to Minnesota. He went into the All-Star break feeling good about himself, after stopping 25 of 27 shots in a 3-2 OT win at Ottawa.

NHL wants arenas to do ‘better job’ avoiding bad ice


From a postponed game in Carolina to a lengthy delay in Pittsburgh, it has not been a banner season for NHL ice.

Add to the equation all the complaints we’ve been hearing from players about poor surfaces, and it was no surprise that the NHL brought in its resident ice guru, Dan Craig, to speak during the Board of Governors meeting this past weekend in Los Angeles.

It was a message to the owners — let’s make sure the ice crews are on top of their games.

“We want to make sure ice conditions are good for a competitive game, and most importantly we want to make sure they’re safe for the players,” said NHL commissioner Gary Bettman. “Over time, when a player has perhaps a sub-par game, you hear, ‘Oh, the ice was terrible.’ Well, it’s the same for both teams. We’re more concerned with fundamental breakdowns: a hole in the ice where the ice went soft, where the system breaks down.”

Bettman added, “Let’s not get complacent. Because we generally don’t have ice problems, and maybe it was a full moon, maybe it was a coincidence, maybe it was bad luck, but we had a few building issues in a very short period of time. Our goal is to do better and to have our buildings do better.”

Of course, the most complaints we’ve heard about poor ice conditions have come out of Brooklyn, where Bettman conceded there may be a “fundamental” issue with the ice-making system. That may not be a problem for much longer, as the Isles and Barclays Center appear headed for divorce.

Related: Isles can leave Barclays Center after three (or four) seasons

Even a Penguin was happy to see a Flyer earn MVP honors


LOS ANGELES — For one “quick moment,” Sidney Crosby allowed himself to be happy for a Philadelphia Flyer.

Perhaps it helped that Wayne Simmonds, the 2017 All-Star Game MVP, helped Crosby, the captain of the Pittsburgh Penguins, pocket part of the $1 million prize for winning the 3-on-3 tournament.

Both players, normally fierce rivals, were members of the triumphant Metropolitan Division squad.

“It’s funny, it’s going to be a quick turnaround here and we’ll be playing against him and it’ll be heated,” said Crosby. “We’ll be in scrums in a few days, but I think we all share the way we love playing the game, we love being a part of this, so it was great to see him do well. Things will go back to normal in a few days.”

Simmonds was a popular player Sunday at Staples Center, an arena he used to call home when he played for the Kings. He said it meant a lot to hear the crowd’s support after all those years away.

“I haven’t been here for six years,” he said. “When I was traded I was 22 years old, and I’m 28 now. I’ve been in Philly for the last six years. When you leave a place you don’t expect to come back and get the kind of cheers you did today.”

He added that it was “pretty surreal” to be named MVP, joining a list that includes the likes of Gordie Howe, Jean Beliveau, Wayne Gretzky, Bobby Orr, and Mario Lemieux.

“I don’t even know if I realize what is going on right now,” said Simmonds, “but it’s pretty cool.”

Bettman argues that Olympic participation hurts NHL product


LOS ANGELES — Gary Bettman reiterated his criticism of the International Olympic Committee today, as prospects of a deal to send NHLers to the 2018 Winter Olympics in South Korea remain in doubt.

In an interview with Sportsnet’s Ron MacLean, the commissioner also said that the NHL owes it to the fans to ensure Olympic participation doesn’t affect the quality of the league’s product.

“Our fans love NHL hockey, and that’s what our obligation is to provide, night in and night out, on a best-quality basis,” said Bettman. “And subjecting the game to players who might get injured more often, or are more tired because they’ve got more back-to-backs, so they’re playing five games in seven nights — that’s what you get when you disrupt the schedule.”

Yesterday, Bettman criticized the IOC for its refusal to cover insurance, travel and accommodation costs. He again pointed the finger today, saying the IOC “made a terrible mistake by putting [the expenses] in issue,” since formerly indifferent NHL owners were now wondering if disrupting the season was worth it.

The players still want to go to the Olympics.

“It’s a great experience,” said Sidney Crosby. “I’ve had a couple of opportunities to be a part of it. It’s great memories, and the whole thing, I think it’s great for hockey as well. There’s a lot of moving parts and a lot of people involved in making that decision, though, so we’ll just have to wait and see how things shake out. It’ll be a pretty hot topic here for the next little while.”

Connor McDavid was even more forceful in his desire to go.

“One hundred percent, NHL players should be there,” the 20-year-old told reporters. “I can’t imagine the Olympics without it.”