The long wait for Andrei Markov may be coming to an end.
The Montreal Canadiens' top defenceman, who has played only seven games over the last two seasons, has been cleared for contact drills in practice and hopes to be back in the lineup before the end of the NHL regular season.
The 33-year-old has had a pair of major knee ligament operations over the past two seasons.
He was on the ice with his teammates on Monday, without the "no contact" jersey he has worn lately. He took part in all the drills and looked to be getting close to his old self, although he flexed his right knee at one point after a light lateral bump in the crease from a teammate.
He said later the knee felt fine.
"I'm cleared for contact," he said. "I need a little bit more time to practice with the team and as soon as I feel ready to go I'm going to play.
"Of course I'm happy. I didn't play for a long time. I just want to jump in there and feel the game and have fun. I miss the game a lot. I want to come back as soon as I can."
General manager Pierre Gauthier expected Markov to be ready to start the season, but a setback before the start of training camp turned into arthroscopic surgery and several months of added rehab.
Markov signed a three-year contract last summer that pays US$5.75 million per season.
He will be with the team as it plays Tuesday in Calgary, Thursday in Edmonton, Saturday in Vancouver and March 12 in Buffalo, but it is not certain when he will get into a game.
He will likely need more full-contact practices before he is ready to play. The team will practise on the days between games.
"It's a big difference if you practise with the team or by yourself," he said. "You have to adjust to the speed of the guys.
"I need a little bit of time to adjust to that and I think everything's going to be OK."
Coach Randy Cunneyworth said there is no specific date set for Markov's return.
Markov's presence has been missed mainly on the power play. When he was healthy, Montreal was one of the NHL's best teams with a man advantage, but they have slipped to 29th in the 30-team league.
Much of their success came with Markov anchoring the power play from the left point, either teeing up shots for the other point man, feathering passes to the forwards, or darting in and out from the point to finish plays.
He was also a strong puck-mover at even strength who made a succession of partners better.
"He's an elite defenceman. He's world class," said defenceman Josh Gorges, one of the few players left on the club who remember Markov when he was at the top of his game. "He brings a sense of calm and reliability.
"You know when he's on the ice you just have to get open. He's going to find you. He'll make the play. That calming influence rubs off on other players."
There had been questions on whether, with a playoff position all-but out of reach, the Canadiens would keep him out to make sure he's ready for next season.
Now the question is whether he will have the same jump in his stride as he did before his run of injuries.
Markov has played only 52 games over the past three campaigns.
In the team's 2009-10 season opener, he was sidelined nearly three months after having an Achilles tendon accidentally severed by goalie Carey Price's skate.
He returned in December, 2009, but then tore knee ligaments while playing against Pittsburgh in the playoffs.
He returned during the 2010-11 season, but played only seven times before injuring the same knee on an awkward hit by Carolina's Eric Staal.
"He brings a lot of skill to our lineup," said Price. "It's nice just to have him around.
"We're always talking about how Marky's doing and this and that, but it's nice to be on the ice with him and see he's doing well."
The Russian rearguard, who received his Canadian citizenship in 2010, has 81 goals and 285 assists in 623 NHL games. He was drafted 162nd overall in 1998.
The Calgary game will be big for winger Rene Bourque, who was traded by the Flames to Montreal in mid-January for Michael Cammalleri, who will miss the game with an upper body injury.
Bourque has been underwhelming with four goals and two assists in 22 games as a Canadien, but Cammalleri was also struggling before he was traded.
"We're different players," said Bourque. "He's a great hockey player and I wish him the best."
The Alberta native is looking forward visiting the rink where he played for three and a half seasons and blossomed into a two-time 27 goal scorer.
"I'm not expecting to go in there and get booed or anything," he said with a laugh. "I think the guys liked me there. I played my heart out for three years, so hopefully it will be good
"It was where I really started to play well. Brent Sutter helped me a lot when I first got there. I played with guys like Iggy (Jarome Iginla) and Kipper (Miikka Kiprusoff) three years and it'll be nice to see them."
Forwards Scott Gomez and Aaron Palushaj, both out with eye injuries, are expected to join the team at some point during the road trip. Defenceman Rafael Diaz, who has a lower body injury, will make the trip.