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HOCKEY

Plekanec quietly emerging as one of game's top centers

MONTREAL -- If you ask the average hockey fan to name the top 10 scoring centers in the NHL, names will come fast and furious.

Sidney Crosby? No-brainer.

Steven Stamkos? Of course.

Henrik Sedin? Obviously.

But how many fans would know Tomas Plekanec of the Montreal Canadiens sits in a tie for eighth among NHL centers in points going into Thursday's games? Or that he was tied for 12th among centers last season, alongside such superstars as Eric Staal, Pavel Datsyuk and Vincent Lecavalier?

Probably not too many, and frankly, Plekanec doesn't lose too much sleep over it.

"Of course it would be nice to get the recognition, but I like it this way," Plekanec told NHL.com this week. "In Montreal you get that recognition every second of the day. So I wouldn't say it bothers me, but of course it would be nice."

Yes, it would be nice and it surely will be coming, because there is only so long that Plekanec can continue performing as one of the League's top two-way centers without any of the accolades that should come with that status.

Very few players have Plekanec's combination of defensive awareness and offensive prowess. His vision and playmaking skills have been a cornerstone of a Canadiens power play that ranked second in the NHL last season and recently has worked its way out of an early-season slump. His dogged defense and tremendous anticipation also make him one of the League's top penalty killers, anchoring a Montreal unit that has held opponents off the scoreboard in 39 of its past 42 opportunities.

Last season, Plekanec was one of only two players who finished among the top 30 forwards in shorthanded ice time and also the top 30 on the scoring list.

The other was Vancouver's Ryan Kesler, who has been nominated for the Selke Trophy as the NHL's top defensive forward two seasons in a row and finished second to Datsyuk in an extremely tight vote last season. Plekanec, meanwhile, finished 26th in the Selke voting.

Teammate Hal Gill admits his own perception of Plekanec changed once he joined the Canadiens at the start of last season.

"What surprised me most when I got here was to see how hard he competes every night," Gill said. "I always kind of thought of him as a guy who stayed on the perimeter, but he does a lot of the little things and goes in those tough areas. You see that when you watch him play every night. A lot of guys don't like playing against him because he has that grit to his game."

Plekanec, however, takes some of the blame for his public persona, or lack thereof.

"Maybe a part of it is my fault, because I'm not the kind of person who tries to sell himself in the media," he said. "I'm usually out of the dressing room pretty quickly, not because I don't want to talk, it's just for me personally, as an individual, I don't need to be in the room and wait for someone to come and ask me questions. But if you do that, you're in the media every day. So maybe it's my fault, because if I were in the media more maybe I would get that recognition."

Perhaps, but one thing is sure -- Plekanec would get no recognition if he wasn't excelling on the ice.

Except two seasons ago, it looked as though Plekanec may have been on his way out of the NHL. After posting a breakout season in 2007-08 with 69 points, he had a slow start to the 2008 playoffs and made a comment that unfortunately has stuck with him his whole career.

"The last two games," Plekanec said between Games 3 and 4 of the Canadiens' first-round series against the Boston Bruins, "I played like a little girl out there."

The following season Plekanec plummeted to 39 points and his confidence was so low, then-coach Bob Gainey made him a healthy scratch for a game in the 2009 playoffs.

That summer Plekanec went home to Kladno in the Czech Republic and sought advice on what he was doing wrong. A trusted player taught him a lesson that had a profound impact on him.

"I started to learn more about myself, kind of the mental side of it," Plekanec said. "Maybe it saved my career. I'm the kind of person who thinks about the game a lot, maybe not so much now, but before. I think that's what hurt me. I read some books and getting that advice, that really helped me."

Today, a clearer-headed Plekanec can look back at that infamous "little girl" quote and laugh it off as the byproduct of a problem that plagued him then, but no longer does.

"There are times I regret it and other times I laugh about it," he said. "If I would have known how some people were going to react to it, I would have said something else. But I was hard on myself back then, I said it after two bad games. It was way too early to be that hard on myself."

Last season, Plekanec arrived back from his summer of reflection and entered a situation that carried a lot of pressure -- his first shot at unrestricted free agency looming at the end of the season.

Except his new outlook allowed Plekanec to embrace his unbridled love of the game, and the success followed, ultimately landing him a six-year, $30 million contract in the offseason.

One thing many fans, and even people around the League, will never see is just how much Plekanec lives to play the game.

He rarely is, if ever, the second player on the ice for practice. In Toronto, before the Canadiens' season-opener Oct. 7, the Zamboni was cleaning the ice at the Air Canada Centre for Montreal's morning skate. Sitting on the bench waiting impatiently for the Zamboni driver to finish his work was Plekanec, not wanting to waste a moment of ice time.

"First of all, it's a pleasure to coach Tomas Plekanec," coach Jacques Martin said. "He's a great person, he's committed. He's always first at the rink, he prepares properly. He's giving us some strong hockey. A lot of times he'll play against the opposition's top line and he's not a selfish player. He plays on the penalty kill, 5-on-5, power play, so he's a very important part of our team."

That team is sitting near the top of the NHL standings, largely because its best player continues producing in every situation imaginable.

And likely sooner than later, Plekanec will be properly recognized for it.