Having regular linemates has been a relief for Tomas Plekanec.
The centre on the Montreal Canadiens’ most productive line has six goals and 10 points through the opening 10 games of the NHL season and hopes to keep that run going when the Canadiens play host to the Toronto Maple Leafs on Saturday night.
Last season, between injuries and the mid-season trade of Michael Cammalleri, it seemed that Plekanec was given different linemates each game, often with players called up from the AHL.
The result was that even though he played in 81 games, he had only 17 goals, the first time he failed to top 20 in six years.
“It’s definitely a huge help,” he said Friday of playing regularly with Brian Gionta and Rene Bourque. “I feel that every game we’ve played since the beginning of the season we improved a bit offensively.
“We started to know about each other, and how we want to play in the offensive and defensive zones. You have an idea about where people will be.”
Among the plague of injuries that was at the root of a dismal season that saw the Canadiens drop to the bottom of the Eastern Conference, Gionta tore a biceps muscle in November and was gone for the season.
Possibly due to an abdominal problem, Bourque struggled when he was acquired for Cammalleri and dropped to five goals in 38 games after scoring 27 in each of the previous two campaigns with the Calgary Flames.
Bourque has impressed with his hard-working approach and had three goals and seven points, while Gionta has a pair of goals and five points thus far.
With the usual first line of David Desharnais with Max Pacioretty and Erik Cole still finding itself on the ice, the Plekanec unit is getting the most ice time this season.
“[Plekanec] got put in a tough position last year due to injuries,” said coach Michel Therrien. “And with the performance of Desharnais’ line, it was hard to make any changes.
“Now he’s got stability with his partners. And the fact that Gionta is healthy and that Rene Bourque is playing really good hockey helps. They seem to have good chemistry. This is the line that has played really good every game since the start of the year.”
Plekanec spent the lockout playing in his home town of Kladno, Czech Republic, with teammate Tomas Kaberle and with Jaromir Jagr, but pulled a muscle in his rib a few weeks before the lockout ended.
He missed the first few days of training camp, but was ready to go when the regular season opened on Jan. 19.
“We didn’t want to risk anything and when we decided I was good to go, I was good to go,” said Plekanec. “I didn’t want to jump into the first game and get hurt and be out. I was 100 per cent when I started and I feel good now.”
Plekanec had a pair of goals as the Canadiens took a 4-2 lead and looked to be cruising to a win in Buffalo on Thursday night, only see it disappear and eventually to lose 5-4 in a shootout.
The goat of that game was forward Ryan White, who got four minutes for roughing in the third period when he reacted to a low but legal hit from Steve Ott by dropping his gloves and throwing punches. Buffalo got one goal on the power play, then tied it with two seconds left in regulation time.
White had just returned to the lineup after being benched for three games after taking a double-minor a week earlier that let the Senators blow open a 5-1 game in Ottawa.
He had a meeting Friday morning with Therrien and said he would not be in the lineup against the Leafs.
“Obviously, he wasn’t too happy about it,” said White. “I’ve got to play my game, but it’s a fine line to walk.
“My body of work shows I’m a disciplined player most of the time, but I crossed the line a few times and hurt my team and that’s the way it goes. (Ott) is pretty smart. He dragged me into a four-minute penalty. I thought he went low on me there and I just reacted the wrong way. I thought he was taking a shot at my knees. I shouldn’t put me ahead of the team.”
His teammates were quick to back him up.
“I’ve been there a few times myself,” said Colby Armstrong. “Everyone in here cares about Whitey and loves the guy.
“He has good energy every day. He plays on the edge. I guess you learn from it and move forward, but everyone in this room has his back. It’s too bad we couldn’t get that (penalty) kill for him.”
The Canadiens (6-3-1) will be looking to avenge an opening night 2-1 loss on home ice to the Leafs (6-5-0), who are coming off a 3-2 win in Winnipeg that saw last year’s scoring leader Phil Kessel get his first goal of the season.
The Canadiens held an optional practice in which 15 players skated. Carey Price is expected back in goal after Peter Budaj played in Buffalo.
Note: Much was made of a TV cameraman’s Tweet showing a board in the Montreal dressing room with “53 $500” on it. That’s White’s number, but Therrien called it “very, very bad information” that it meant the player had been fined. White had put up the money before the game; to go into the players’ fund if they won.