Thursday, September 16, 2010

Plekanec Rising

It's only a few months behind us, but already the Canadiens' unexpected and impressive playoff run of last spring is fading gracefully into a series of snapshots; sepia-tinted memories of two exciting, riveting months that brought fans and team together. Cammalleri batting a goal out of the air. Snap. Halak stopping two, three, four shots in a row. Snap. Plekanec burying the Game One winner in OT, Subban mirroring Crosby's moves in the corner, Moen blowing by Gonchar to score. Snap. Snap. Snap. The mental photographs of the playoff run are indelible and romantic. The truth is, while the spring was great fun, it's fall now and the players believe they've still got work to do before they're sitting back, satisfied, drinking beer from the Cup.

Pierre Gauthier gave his "state of the team" address this week, and he discussed the reasoning behind the summer's moves. High on his to-do list, he mentioned, was the re-signing of Tomas Plekanec. Management wanted to keep the playoff core intact, and Gauthier said Plekanec is a key part of that core. The centreman's new, six-year deal and accompanying no-trade clause both lock him up and free him. Security works both ways in the NHL.

Plekanec is a very involved part of the way the team functions on the ice, racking up time in every situation. He's facing pressure to perform and prove, again, that he's worth the contract he signed. Still, he says, he didn't spend the summer thinking up offensive targets for this year.

"I didn't set any goals," he reveals. "I just want to be healthy and play in a way that will help the team. It is always nice when you add up goals and assists, but my game is not about points. It's two-way play and it goes back to the playoffs performance."

Plekanec's playoff performance was dissected like a lab frog all summer. He put up decent offensive numbers, but he also played a vital shut-down role, especially against Sidney Crosby in the Penguins series. The closer he shadowed Crosby, the fewer points he scored himself. At the same time, Crosby wasn't scoring either, but the drop in Plekanec's numbers had the casual fan wondering why he "disappeared" in the playoffs.

"Unfortunately, that's the way it is," Plekanec explains. "I'm sure that if I said "it bothers me" it wouldn't change a thing. At the end of the season, at the press conference, Coach Martin answered this question about my performance and my role in the playoffs. It's just too bad some people didn't recognize it. I still think I did my job well enough to help the team go through that second round."

Part of the perception of Plekanec's playoffs has to do with the infamous "little girl" comment in the second round against the Flyers two years ago. When asked about his performance in the midst of a frustrating, losing series, he said, "I'm playing like a little girl." The comment has followed him ever since.

"I'm not sure if 'regret' is the right word," he says when asked about whether he'd like a do-over on that statement. "I was obviously thinking about this 'quote' a lot. I was disappointed that some people interpreted it the wrong way. But at the end of the day, it didn't change anything in my career. To answer that question straight up, yes, I would have used a different metaphor."

That's all in the past now, and Plekanec has earned his new contract. He's been a workhorse for the Habs, regardless of his opinions about his own play. This season, he'll be expected to continue playing the first minute of every penalty kill and power play, as well as facing off against the toughest lines the opposition can throw out on the ice. Some speculate that the physical responsibility of the penalty kill wore him down toward the end of last year, but Plekanec says the power play is actually the tougher assignment.

"I'd say the power play because the fans expect you to score," he explains. "Really, it's all important, but the power play has to give you a boost for even-strength play, even if you don't score. The same can be said for the penalty kill. If you kill a big PK, it will give you a boost for even strength also."

The one role that seemed beyond him last year, and in which he'd like to improve, was the shootout. As the team's leading scorer, he hoped to be better in those situations. The baffling part to him was his success in game breakaways in comparison.

"I'm not sure why that is. When I was a kid in junior or even before, I was excellent in shootouts. Maybe I'm thinking too much, even if I don't want to," he muses. On regular breakaways, you have no time to think. That's the only way I can explain it."

He has the comfort now of knowing he's got the next six years in Montreal to work on his game and contribute without the fear of a trade throwing his life and career suddenly into chaos. The new contract and its no-trade clause should mean his name won't come up in trade rumours as often as it did a couple of seasons ago, when he was reported to be included in a proposed deal for Vincent Lecavalier. Still, he thinks the security the contract offers doesn't mean he can become complacent.

"Well, first of all, 'no trade' clause doesn't mean much," he reasons. "If somebody asks you to leave, I don't think you'll want to stay, right? And obviously, if your name is in all the rumours it's not a great feeling."

That's a feeling Plekanec, with a couple of good wingers beside him, shouldn't have again for a while. He's looking forward to the fresh start of a new season. He's been playing squash and tennis and following ex-Habs conditioning coach Scott Livingston's fitness program to get ready physically. Mentally, he feels the responsibility of a veteran to be a leader, although he's not about to start giving pep talks.

"Well, I don't think that people from the outside will see the difference I could make," he says. "I won't change. I am a quiet person and my leadership shows through my performace on the ice more than in the dressing room."

The snapshots of memory created during the last playoffs have raised expectations for this year's team. The players know each other now, and are going into the season mostly healthy, which they so often weren't last year. Plekanec says the experience the Cup-winning veterans bring to the lineup is invaluable, and will come in handy when the playoffs roll around again.

There's a lot of hockey on the schedule before next spring, though. The games, no matter how talented the players, still have to be fought and won if the Canadiens want to make some more of those golden playoff moments. However the season turns out, though, there's no doubt Tomas Plekanec will play an important part in writing and illustrating this year's Montreal Canadiens story.


johnny said...

turtleneck ftw

moeman said...

Great read J.T.


Anonymous said...

Good point on the 'no trade' clause although not being wanted doesn't bother the players in Toronto.

Anonymous said...

Congratulation about your site. I ve been reading you for a year now and your posts are always very interesting and your writing unmatched in the sports field. I m surprised that you don t have more followers...keep on the good work

Anonymous said...

So glad that Pierre feels Halak was not part of the playoff core. Oh wait a minute! That dude sitting on the bench for all but one game of the playoffs must be part of that playoff core. Now I get it.