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X-Factor: Plekanec's two-way play ideal for Canadiens

by Arpon Basu

Montreal Canadiens coach Michel Therrien will be tasked with figuring out a way to stop Tampa Bay Lightning scoring machine Steven Stamkos in the Eastern Conference First Round series between the Atlantic Division teams.

Luckily for Therrien, he'll have a one-man solution sitting on his bench.

Canadiens center Tomas Plekanec is one of the NHL's top two-way forwards, as comfortable on the penalty kill as he is on the power play and routinely given the task by Therrien to shut down the opposing team's top offensive threat.

In this series, that assignment will almost assuredly be to check Stamkos, making Plekanec perhaps the most important forward for the Canadiens.

But that's nothing new.

Plekanec has quietly gone about his business for the Canadiens for years without ever finishing in the top 10 in the voting for the Selke Trophy, awarded to the League's best defensive forward. Getting Plekanec to talk about anything, let alone himself, can be a challenge. He doesn't yearn for accolades and doing interviews generally causes him to break out in hives.

But his teammates are only too willing to spell out his importance.

"He's a guy that every team needs if you want to be a good team," said defenseman Josh Gorges, who has spent years on Montreal's top penalty-killing unit with Plekanec. "You need to have that guy that, in any situation, he's going to be good. He's not necessarily magnificent or flashy or spectacular, but if you need a big faceoff you can throw him in, you need something to get going on the power play you can throw him in, in penalty killing he's the guy you throw out there. He's kind of your everything guy."

Plekanec has often been criticized for his performance in the Stanley Cup Playoffs based on his offensive numbers, even though his points-per-game average in postseason play (0.63) is practically equal to his career regular-season average (0.65).

But, his true value is his ability to do what he will be tasked with against Stamkos in this series against the Lightning.

In the 2011 Stanley Cup Playoffs, for instance, Plekanec helped limit Boston Bruins center David Krejci to one goal in seven games. Once freed from Plekanec's clutches, Krejci went on to score 11 goals with 11 assists in his next 18 games to claim the postseason scoring crown as the Bruins won the Stanley Cup.

One year prior, Plekanec helped limit Alex Ovechkin to one goal during the final three games of a comeback from a 3-1 series deficit in the first round against the Washington Capitals, and then held Sidney Crosby to one goal and four assists in another seven-game win against the Pittsburgh Penguins in the second round.

Canadiens captain Brian Gionta spent most of the season playing on Plekanec's right wing and he has trouble finding more than a handful of NHL players that can match what Plekanec offers at each end of the ice.

"It's a guy that plays in all facets of the game and he kind of goes under the radar," Gionta said. "I don't think there's that many that are that good at all the parts, who are a true two-way forward or centerman like he is.

"They're hard to come by, and that's why they're so valuable."

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