Thomas Vanek has been taking fewer shots on net, raising questions about his health. Richard Wolowicz/Getty Images
With the way Rangers goalie Henrik Lundqvist has played in the first two games of the Eastern Conference final, the Montreal Canadiens will need all the offensive help they can get to rally from the tough spot they’re in, down two games to none with the series shifting to New York for Game 3 on Thursday (CBC, CBCSports.ca, 7:30 p.m. ET).
Lars Eller’s and David Desharnais’s lines put forth valiant efforts in the first two games, to no avail. Much quieter has been Tomas Plekanec’s line, where all eyes are on $7-million winger Thomas Vanek.
Despite sharing the team lead with five goals in the post-season, Vanek has been a shell of the dangerous scorer he was late in the regular season. He’s been barely noticeable since losing his spot alongside Desharnais and Max Pacioretty on the top offensive line early in the second round.
Chemistry seems to be lacking, although Vanek had a few good looks with a returning Alex Galchenyuk as his left-winger in Game 2.
At Wednesday's practice, though, Vanek was moved down to the fourth line alongside centre Daniel Briere and winger Brandon Prust.
Even before the switch, Vanek didn't exactly sound thrilled with his status on the Plekanec line.
“I think it’s a different role," he said this week. "We start a lot more in the [defensive] zone. But at this time of the year, it doesn’t matter where you’re at, you just want to be in the lineup and contribute."
While chemistry and the way Vanek is being used might be issues, there are some who think he's playing hurt. Both Vanek and Canadiens head coach Michel Therrien say he's healthy, but injuries are often hidden in the playoffs.
A look at the five goals Vanek has scored in the playoffs doesn't exactly show highlight-reel efforts.
The first three were the result of tip-ins or deflections. The last two, both scored in Game 6 against Boston, weren’t the prettiest either. On one goal, he simply pushed a loose puck past the line, while his second that night was scored into an empty net.
Vanek's problems have been even more apparent since the start of the second round. In his last nine games, he has totalled only 11 shots on goal. And it’s not like he's shooting wide or opposing teams are throwing their bodies in front of him. In those nine games, he missed the net only six times, and eight of his attempts were blocked.
For a guy who has averaged better than three shots on goal per game over the last two seasons, which doesn't even count missed and blocked shots, there is clearly something wrong. Too many times, Vanek seems willing to take other options instead of firing the puck to the net. As NHL.com’s Arpon Basu put it, "If the NHL kept 'should have shot' stats..."
With the Habs down 2-0 and a fresh, healthy body available in Galchenyuk, Therrien might be tempted to shake things up offensively. But if Vanek has some kind of upper-body injury that's preventing him from shooting, you have to wonder if new linemates will actually bring about any change.
In any event, let’s just say the “Will Vanek re-sign in Montréel this summer?” questions, so widely heard a month ago, have been put to rest lately.
Therrien’s decision to go with young goaltender Dustin Tokarski over veteran backup Peter Budaj in Game 2 and, it was announced Wednesday, Game 3, have added an interesting twist to the Habs-Rangers series.
It also makes for a good summer storyline. If the Canadiens don’t want to trust Budaj when it matters most, shouldn’t they just move on, give Tokarski the backup job behind Carey Price next season and try to trade Budaj?
Budaj’s contract runs for one season, at a cap hit of $1.4 million, while Tokarski has a two-way contract next season that turns into a one-way the following year. Logically, that seems to be the date targeted for the passing of the torch, but it will be interesting to see if this series changes anything in that regard.
For what it’s worth, Budaj’s body language in Monday’s warmup was outstanding. He was challenging shooters with his usual energy, even though he was going through what had to be a very disappointing day. Budaj wasn’t available for post-game comments, as is always the case with the goalie who doesn’t play, but defenceman Josh Gorges called him “the ultimate teammate.”
18 — Shots attempted by P.K. Subban in Game 2. Nine were stopped by Henrik Lundqvist, while the others either missed the net or were blocked.
3 — Even-strength goals allowed by the Tricolore when defenceman Mike Weaver is on the ice in the playoffs. Weaver has played 163 minutes of even-strength hockey in the post-season thus far. You can’t really ask for more from a third-pair d-man.
6 — Bodychecks registered by former Hab Benoit Pouliot in Game 2. The talented forward has found his niche in Manhattan, making Montréal fans wonder where this guy was during his time with the Canadiens. Pouliot's playoff effort may be enough for him to break a string of five straight one-year contracts