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Habs' top scorer in January games
PAT HICKEY, The Gazette
Published: Wednesday, January 31, 2007


Tomas Plekanec was the most productive of the Canadiens in January, but the second-year centre admits he's still trying to keep pace with linemate Alex Kovalev.

"I try to think one step ahead, but he's thinking two steps ahead," said Plekanec, who led the Canadiens in January with seven goals and 12 points in 12 games.

Fans and the media have questioned whether Plekanec is capable of playing centre on the team's No. 2 line, but as the Canadiens prepare to meet the surging Penguins tomorrow night in Pittsburgh (7:30 p.m., TSN, RDS, CJAD Radio-800), he ranks as the team's sixth-leading scorer with 24 points and he is a plus-5 in the plus/minus figures, a heady number on a team that is awash with minuses.

While Plekanec dismisses the importance of the plus/minus figures - "It's more about how a line is playing and a lot of guys have minuses because we do a lot of scoring on the power play and we haven't played as good as we can 5-on-5" - his numbers reflect his quiet but steady improvement.

"Earlier this season, I think I was minus-9, but I've been lucky that the bounces have been going my way and I've been able to score," Plekanec said. "I haven't really changed my game a lot."

One thing that has changed this season is Plekanec's confidence.

While he admits that he struggled earlier in the season, he said he was encouraged by the fact the coaching staff continued to have faith in him.

Coach Guy Carbonneau has tried a variety of combinations on the second line, Plekanec and Kovalev have been the constants.

Plekanec has also seen extensive action as a penalty-killer and, more recently, on the power play. He scored his second shorthanded goal in the Canadiens' 3-1 win over Ottawa Monday night. He also has three power-play goals and a career-high 10 goals for the season.

The current trio has Plekanec between Kovalev and rookie Guillaume Latendresse, who adds a physical dimension.

"He works along the boards and he goes hard to the net," Plekanec noted.

Sergei Samsonov, who was on the second line for most of the season,is on the checking line with Radek Bonk and Mike Johnson. After he was a healthy scratch for the Jan. 16 game against Vancouver, he returned to the lineup and ended a 16-game goal drought with a goal in Atlanta. He has been held off the scoreboard in his last three games, but appears comfortable in his new role.

"The important thing on the new line is to play good defence," said Samsonov, who earned praise from Carbonneau after throwing himself in front of a shot in Monday's win over Ottawa. The coach used the block as an example of the Canadiens' work ethic.

Samsonov's output this season - seven goals and 13 assists - hardly matches his $3.575-million salary, but the expectations aren't as high on the third line.

There was one lineup change in practice yesterday. Steve Begin replaced Johnson on the third line, but both players insisted it wouldn't have any bearing on the lineup in Pittsburgh.

Johnson was taking it easy after he tweaked his right ankle when he became tangled with Ottawa's Patrick Eaves Monday.

As for Begin, he's still on the injured list as he recovers from back spasms that have sidelined him for almost eight weeks.

"I'm not ready to play yet," Begin said. "I'm feeling better but I don't want to set a target for my return. I was originally supposed to miss a few days and it will be eight weeks this weekend."

Coach Guy Carbonneau has tried a variety of combinations on the second line, Plekanec and Kovalev have been the constants.

Plekanec has also seen extensive action as a penalty-killer and, more recently, on the power play. He scored his second shorthanded goal in the Canadiens'

3-1 win over Ottawa Monday night. He also has three power-play goals and a career-high 10 goals for the season.

The current trio has Plekanec between Kovalev and rookie Guillaume Latendresse, who adds a physical dimension.

"He works along the boards and he goes hard to the net," Plekanec noted.

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