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Jagr, Plekanec bank on chemistry for success in Sochi

by Arpon Basu

When the Czech Republic announced the team that would represent the country at the 2014 Sochi Olympics, one of the big surprises was that Montreal Canadiens center Tomas Plekanec would serve as team captain.

Not that Plekanec is undeserving of such an honor, but considering the other options available to Czech coach Alois Hadamczik, his selection raised a few eyebrows.

Plekanec admitted even he was mildly surprised despite serving as Czech captain at the IIHF World Championships for the past few years. But he doesn't think it holds that much importance on a veteran-laden team.

"It's obviously a great honor and I'm happy about it, but it's just a letter on a jersey," Plekanec said the day he was named to the team. "We need to all play like captains to be successful."

But one person who wasn't surprised is the player who most considered to be the ideal candidate for the job, New Jersey Devils forward Jaromir Jagr, the most prolific hockey player in Czech history.

"Of course I wasn't surprised," Jagr said matter-of-factly before his Devils faced Plekanec's Canadiens on Tuesday. "I knew it."

Jagr and Plekanec may have been opponents on Tuesday, but they have vast experience as not only teammates, but linemates with the Czech national team, and it is very likely the two will be playing together again next month in Sochi.

Both are natives of Kladno. Plekanec considered Jagr to be a mentor when he was younger and the two have had success playing together in international competition. But when it comes to personalities, they couldn't be much more different.

Jagr is an outgoing type, regularly joking with teammates and the media, whereas Plekanec has a far more reserved, businesslike persona. He generally speaks to the media only when he's asked to do so and isn't much more chatty with his teammates. When Canadiens goaltender Carey Price heard Plekanec was named Czech team captain, he wondered if Plekanec spoke more often in Czech than he did in English.

"Not really," Jagr said when asked the same question Tuesday. "But it doesn't matter. I've played with so many great players and they didn't speak much in the dressing room, but they were leading by example. You need to play the game. It doesn't mean if you talk a lot in the dressing room that it's going to help the team. You've got to do it on the ice, and it's a lot tougher to do it on the ice than to do it in the dressing room."

Plekanec has been doing it on the ice for the Canadiens for years, playing a hybrid role as a shutdown center who also produces offensively. Though he fits the profile perfectly of a candidate to win the Selke Trophy as the NHL's top defensive forward, Plekanec has never so much as finished in the top 10 in voting for the award.

But Jagr said it is not his play in his own end that makes Plekanec such a desirable linemate.

"I never wanted to play with him for his defensive roles," Jagr said. "We wanted to score goals. I never looked at him as a defensive center."

When playing alongside Jagr, Plekanec has indeed been an offensive force.

At the 2011 IIHF World Championships, the last international competition in which they played together, Plekanec had six goals and four assists in eight games to finish tied for second in tournament scoring; Jagr had five goals and four assists in nine games to finish tied for fifth.

The two played together most recently for HC Kladno, the Czech club team Jagr owns in their hometown, during the NHL lockout in 2012. Jagr finished in a tie for third in Czech Extraliga scoring with 57 points in 34 games despite missing the end of the season when the NHL began play, and Plekanec had 46 points in 32 games, tied for 13th in league scoring.

Though that chemistry should serve the Czechs well in Sochi, what some are seeing as a big disadvantage for the team is seen by both Jagr and Plekanec as an asset.

The Czechs named 17 NHL players to their 25-man roster, with the eight others coming from either the Czech Extraliga or the KHL. Those eight players have spent all season playing on the international ice surface that will be used in Sochi, and which is 15 feet wider than it is in the NHL.

"It's a completely different sport," Plekanec said of the larger ice.

Jagr said the big difference he sees on the big ice is that scoring chances are harder to generate because you often find yourself further away from the net. Defenders are willing to give players space to the outside, but shooting from there is pointless against the top goaltenders in the world, Jagr said. With the NHL game focused greatly on winning battles along the boards to generate chances to score, that will be a difficult adjustment to make.

"It wouldn't be any problem if you had a month to prepare for it, but you get one practice," Jagr said. "If you've been playing for three months one kind of style where you've got to stand on the boards, and then you have to skate all the time, it's totally different hockey.

"There are some guys in Europe you guys might not know about that might be a big factor in that tournament."

That may very well be true, but it is more likely the biggest factor will be the combination of Jagr and Plekanec, an odd couple that has produced for the Czech Republic nearly every time they have worn the uniform together.

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