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Northeast: Habs' Plekanec takes faceoffs seriously

by John McGourty
There were a lot of reasons the Montreal Canadiens won the Northeast Division last season, improving by 14 points to lead the Eastern Conference with 104 points.

One of the biggest reasons is the continuing development of first-line center Tomas Plekanec, 25, who appears poised to make his fourth full NHL season his best. Plekanec has increased his point totals each of the last three seasons and has developed into one of the NHL's top centers on faceoffs.

Plekanec is the NHL leader in faceoffs through the first 3 games and he's expected to remain near the top. He's always been pretty good at faceoffs, but really came on during the second half of last season and the Stanley Cup Playoffs.

Plekanec won 50.3 percent of his faceoffs as a rookie in 2005-06; 48.3 percent in 2006-07; 49.4 percent last season; and he's at 58.7 percent, with the fifth-highest total of faceoffs taken, this season.

Plekanec says he's better in the circles now because he's bigger and stronger, more experienced and more committed to details.

"I just tried to focus more," he said. "It's always been an important part of the game, and now, with the new rules, there are more faceoffs in the offensive zone. On power plays it's even more important than it was before. I'm just trying to focus on it. You know, it's not just about being the center. I have to try to help the wingers to win the faceoff, too."

Plekanec is aware that the team that has the most puck-possession time in a game most is often the winner.

"That's probably the most important reason to want to win faceoffs," he said. "Puck possession is an important part of the game and it can't be overlooked."

As a result, Plekanec centers right wing Alex Kovalev, who is coming off the second-best season of his 16-year NHL career. Kovalev had 35 goals and 49 assists in 82 games, while going plus-18.

Plekanec had 9 goals and 20 assists in his first full season, 2005-06, and followed with 20 goals and 27 assists in his sophomore season. He broke out last season, posting 29 goals and 69 points in 81 games and was a plus-15.

Plekanec and Kovalev teamed last season with left wing Andrei Kostitsyn, 23, who had 26 goals and 27 assists. He's on the left wing again, and the trio has clicked for 2 goals and 3 assists in the team's first 3 games.

Plekanec benefits from playing for coach Guy Carbonneau and his assistant coaches, Doug Jarvis and Kirk Muller. All three were excellent faceoff men in their day and have spent time coaching Plekanec to be better.

"Whether you are good on faceoffs depends on how you approach the game," Carbonneau said. "I look at a guy like Rod Brind'Amour: You cannot be at 58 or 60 percent victorious in faceoffs if you don't care about winning faceoffs in the neutral zone. Tomas is one of those who wants to practice a lot. He wants us to stay after practice and work with him. Even on the morning of a game, we'll take faceoffs.

"Part of it is skills and instinct. Part of it is hard work and another part is competitiveness. You have to have it in your head that you want to win faceoffs."

Carbonneau hasn't put on a pound since his playing days, when he was one of the NHL's most competitive, driven, detail-oriented players. He'd be the way to bet, one would think, in a faceoff competition with Brind'Amour or Plekanec. So does the coach challenge the student in practice?

"I do sometimes, but more often I drop the puck," Carbonneau said.

Kobasew can't stay healthy -- Regardless of who you root for, your heart has to break for Chuck Kobasew, the first-line right wing for the Boston Bruins who broke his ankle last Thursday in the season opener at Colorado. The team said he will miss at least 3 weeks. Even then, Kobasew likely will lose a good deal of conditioning that he worked so hard for this summer.

Kobasew is coming off his best NHL season, posting 22 goals while playing on a line with Marc Savard, but he missed the end of the regular season and the first-round series with the Montreal Canadiens because of a fractured tibia.

Unfortunately, Kobasew's injury list reads more like a team's injury list. He had a shoulder injury in 2004, groin problems in 2006, a concussion in 2007 and then a broken elbow and another concussion. He was nursing a right-ankle injury when the Flames traded him to the Bruins. Last season, Kobasew had a back injury and a recurrence of groin problems before his broken leg.

He's still only 26 so there's plenty of time for him to be the kind of difference-maker he has been at every other level. It's time for Kobasew's luck to start breaking the other way.

"They have great speed and skill, all these guys, but those guys, they play such a hard-working game. (Henrik) Zetterberg, (Pavel) Datsyuk, they outwork you as much as they do with their skill. That's why they won. To me, that's one of the great lessons there." -- Craig Hartsburg

Hard-working talent -- Senators coach Craig Hartsburg explained to the Ottawa Sun's Chris Stevenson why the Detroit Red Wings are the defending Stanley Cup champion. It's a variation on the old "hard work beats talent when talent doesn't work hard" truism. As Hartsburg notes, when talent works hard, it's hard to beat.

"The tempo and the pace they play at every shift is something we have to continue to work at," Hartsburg said. "They have great speed and skill, all these guys, but those guys, they play such a hard-working game. (Henrik) Zetterberg, (Pavel) Datsyuk, they outwork you as much as they do with their skill. That's why they won. To me, that's one of the great lessons there."

"Their transition game, everybody talks about how they move the puck up the ice, but the other side of their transition game from offense to defense, is better than anybody's in the League from what I've seen. How hard they come back immediately, how quick they backcheck to get the puck back."

More hard work -- Buffalo Sabres coach Lindy Ruff was getting his team ready Friday morning for that night's season-opening game against the Montreal Canadiens (which Buffalo won in a shootout) when he was asked about the previous night's surprising victory by the Toronto Maple Leafs against the Red Wings.

Ruff seemed as surprised as anyone that the Maple Leafs upset the Red Wings in Detroit. When asked what he thought, Ruff did a little double-take before speaking.

"I thought it was very eye-opening because they worked incredibly hard," he said. "I thought they deserved to win. They were resilient with their work ethic. They never let up. They forced the play right to the end. ... It's been said that if your talent doesn't want to work, then the hard workers will beat the talent. I thought they deserved the game and they played really well."

It's a common theme. In fact, you never will hear a coach say, "We didn't work very hard tonight but I loved our skill level. Never mind the lack of effort and the defensive mistakes, we skated circles around them."

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