BROSSARD, Que. — Tomas Plekanec doesn’t draw a lot of Selke Trophy votes as the NHL’s best defensive forward, but coach Michel Therrien thinks he ought to.
“He should be a serious candidate for sure,” Therrien said Monday of his best two-way centre. “He does so may good things on the ice.
“When we ask him to play against the other teams’ top lines, he always does the job and he can contribute on offence too.”
Plekanec and his right winger, captain Brian Gionta, play regularly against the top lines in the NHL. More often than not, the matchup works in Montreal’s favour.
The 31-year-old Czech was at the top of his game in a 2-1 win on Saturday night over the defending Stanley Cup champion Chicago Blackhawks. His unit with veteran Travis Moen on left wing for the night went up against the Blackhawks top line of 2013 Selke winner Jonathan Toews, Marian Hossa and Patrick Sharp.
Plekanec got 19:36 of ice time, won 56 per cent of his faceoffs and had 11 shots on goal, although he failed to register a point.
And Hossa made a sweet move to score in the third period, so Plekanec and his linemates ended the night at minus-1, despite playing perhaps their strongest game of the season.
Plekanec said facing top centres, most of whom are much bigger than his five-foot-11 195-pound frame, has been his job for many years and he doesn’t think about winning awards for it.
“When you go on the ice against those guys you know that your job is to keep them as quiet as possible and try to get their focus on something else than scoring goals,” he said.
“That’s been my job for quite a few years here — being a strong guy at both ends of the ice — but it’s not up to me to decide that and it’s not really where my focus is. My focus is on winning the Stanley Cup with Montreal. It’s nice to hear, but it’s not up to me.”
Despite his many scoring chances, Plekanec ended a three-game points streak. He has 14 goals and 14 assists and is plus-9 in 46 games this season, a little below his 33 points in 47 games in the lockout-shortened 2012-13 campaign.
His best season was 70 points in 2009-10, but since then he has had more emphasis placed on his two-way game, with time on the second power play unit, and he has settled into a 50-plus points player.
“When we’re good on defence, offence comes out of it,” he said. “It think the main reason behind so many scoring chances last game is that we were so strong defensively.
“We didn’t get stuck in our own zone and we were good on the forecheck. That’s how you get offence.”
He is also on the first penalty killing unit with Moen on a team that ranks third in the league with an 86.4 per cent kill rate.
Now he hopes the team can reproduce that effort when it plays host to the much less powerful attack of the New Jersey Devils on Tuesday night.
The 26-15-5 Canadiens have tended to play up or down to their competition this season, which has made for some embarrassing defeats as well as uplifting wins like that against Chicago.
The Devils (19-18-10) are coming off a 3-2 shootout loss to Toronto and have points in four straight games.
“We’ve got to find that consistency in our team play,” said Plekanec. “I don’t think we’ve been able to find it yet this year.
“It’s a good opportunity to come out strong against Jersey. They’re a good team too, even if they’re not as high in the standings. We’ve been playing good games and bad games. We’re in a good spot in the standings and that’s something we can be happy about, but we have to find a way to be better consistently.”
It appears Therrien will keep Moen on Plekanec’s line. The gritty six-foot-two winger has played mostly on checking lines this season and has only one goal in 41 games.
While fans sometimes don’t appreciate what Moen brings to the game, Therrien said he is the kind of player that coaches like.
“He doesn’t do anything spectacular, but his positioning is good, he wins battles on the boards, he understands the game,” said Therrien. “For me, Travis is having a good season.
“He’s very respected by his teammates. We gave him a nice challenge on Saturday and he had a good game.”
A concern for Montreal is how it’s power play, which was scoring regularly early in the season, has sputtered. It has been without a goal in 14 chances over the last four games and has produced only six goals in the last 21.
The team has been working on adjustments to a power play that may have become too dependent on setting up shots from the point, particularly from P.K. Subban.
“Maybe we have to make some down-low plays instead of trying to feed P.K. for a shot because everyone knows he has a strong one-timer, but if we start making other plays, then things will open up for him again,” said Plekanec.
Plekanec is also gearing up to play for the Czech Republic at the Sochi Olympics, where he’ll serve as team captain. One of his teammates will be 42-year-old Peter Nedved, who has been playing in the Czech league since leaving the NHL in 2007.
“He plays really well on the big ice and he’s suited to that game, so I think he’s going to be a pretty good asset,” said Plekanec. “I think a lot of people will be surprised at how well he’s going to play.”