There was a typical cluster of reporters in Montreal's dressing room after Game 1 of the 2014-15 NHL season. Their prey wasn't who you'd expect -- P.K. Subban sat across the room, enjoying a rare minute of solitude. It was Tomas Plekanec, who played hero for the Habs against the Leafs at the Air Canada Center.
Plekanec's night epitomized the expression "They all count." His first goal came when he undressed Leaf goalie Jonathan Bernier on a perfectly delayed backhand deke. His second? A final-minute bank shot off rookie Stuart Percy, clinching a 4-3 road win for Montreal.
And as the media swarm engulfed Plekanec, he took it in stride, even joking that it had "been years" since he'd been asked to play an offensive role. It's not that Plekanec, 31, wasn't capable, but his penalty killing and faceoff prowess made him too indispensable. The addition of outstanding checker Manny Malhotra this off-season, however, gave Plekanec a chance to play on a scoring line between Alex Galchenyuk and Brendan Gallagher. The early results were obviously promising.
At the adjacent stall stood rookie and pre-season sensation Jiri Sekac, 22, with nary a reporter around him, still relatively anonymous. It's natural to compare the Czech prospect with his countryman Plekanec. Their games aren't identical -- Sekac is a winger, for one -- but they share good vision, touch around the net and puck-possession ability. So maybe, the Game 1 hero Plekanec represents the "after" and Sekac is the "before."
"Before" is the operative word because Sekac is just cutting his teeth at the NHL level. He dazzled in the pre-season, generating Calder Trophy buzz after coming over from the Kontinental League, but his regular season debut was nothing to write home about. No shots, no points in about 12 minutes of ice time. But Plekanec was impressed with what he saw from Sekac -- and didn't think the rookie needed a lot of mentorship, either.
“He’s getting so much advice and information from coaches, and it’s new for him," Plekanec said, "so you don’t want to put a lot of talk into his game. He played well. He skates hard. He made some good plays in the offensive zone, and he’s only going to get better with experience and more games under his belt.”
There's a natural bond between the two -- Plekanec nicknamed Sekac 'Forrest Gump' for Sekac's ability to run like the wind during training drills -- but Sekac isn't the cookie-cutter across-the-pond rookie who latches on to the one player who speaks his language. He denies leaning on Plekanec exclusively. He seems proud about it.
“Not language-wise, because I was in the U.S. for two years," Sekac said, with excellent pronunciation. "That’s my big advantage from the first time I was in the U.S. It’s actually way easier now, because I can actually talk to everyone now, not just 'Plecky.' "
Sekac was referring to his first stint in North America, when he played for the Ontario League's Peterborough Petes and the United States League's Youngstown Phantoms before returning to Europe. The second time around, he's more mature and better adjusted to North American life. He was aware of the Habs/Leafs rivalry, though he suggests it's more of a fan creation than something the players think about. Fans are starting to notice him more, wishing him luck in restaurants and such, and he likes it, describing them as "really nice, and not annoying." And while he thoroughly enjoyed his NHL debut, he wasn't frozen with jitters.
“Usually, when I have huge games or something new ahead of me, I get a little bit nervous, but I was surprised that I was not that nervous," Sekac said. "I was just enjoying the game. It was a great feeling. That’s probably why all the nervousness went away.”
Though the nerves may be a different story in Montreal's home opener Oct. 16, it looks like Sekac is already on the way to emulating Plekanec. He's got the cool customer part down. Next up is making his mark on the scoresheet.
Matt Larkin is an associate editor at The Hockey News and a regular contributor to the thn.com Post-To-Post blog. For more great profiles, news and views from the world of hockey, subscribe to The Hockey News magazine. Follow Matt Larkin on Twitter at @THNMattLarkin