TAMPA, Fla. – When a general manager makes a bold move at the NHL’s trade deadline, this is the kind of moment he has in mind.
Tie game in the third period. The first playoff game of the spring. And suddenly Thomas Vanek intercepts a pass in his own zone, finds teammate David Desharnais with a crisp pass on the rush, turns a defender inside-out and scores a big goal.
More often than not, the rented guns for hire don’t make a significant impact down the stretch. It’s one of those truths that GMs seem to conveniently forget each year. But in the case of Vanek and the Montreal Canadiens, this has been an extremely happy and productive marriage so far.
“He’s fit in really well,” Habs coach Michel Therrien said Thursday after practice. “Since he joined our team, I believe it has (brought) confidence to the rest of our hockey club.”
It was only a year ago that Montreal was anything but confident. Facing an Ottawa Senators team that it probably should have beaten, the Canadiens melted down during a highly emotional series that lasted just five games.
There was no hint of a repeat performance during Wednesday’s 5-4 overtime victory over the Tampa Bay Lightning – a game where Montreal refused to bend despite having its fair share of opportunities. This is a different Habs team, as Therrien rightfully points out, and adding a player of Vanek’s caliber is a big reason why.
The Austrian winger hasn’t had to be a savior since being acquired from the New York Islanders for a second-round pick and prospect Sebastian Collberg. However, he immediately became one of the most dangerous offensive weapons (along with linemate Max Pacioretty) on the team that scored the fewest goals among the playoff qualifiers in the Eastern Conference.
“Knowing that he’s on our side is nice because he can make a big play at any time,” said teammate Daniel Briere.
A goal like the one he scored in the opener against the Lightning carries even more weight than normal right now since the Habs are currently mired in an oh-for-25 stretch on the power play. That’s put a lot of pressure on the forwards to produce at even strength.
While Vanek isn’t the type of player that strikes fear in defenders every shift, he’s extremely dangerous around the net. And on Wednesday night, he finished with a game-high seven shots and made a good hard backcheck on Ondrej Palat – lest he be considered only a one-way performer.
Inside the Montreal dressing room, the players viewed the March 5 trade that brought him over from Long Island as a sign that GM Marc Bergevin had faith in the group. The team has gone 13-6-1 since.
“I couldn’t believe it, I thought it was a joke,” said Briere, who was previously a teammate of Vanek’s in Buffalo. “We had heard about him going almost everywhere else and we were hearing about our team kind of selling off and getting rid of players. Then all of a sudden we find out that Thomas Vanek is coming to our team.
“It was pretty cool.”
After a brief (and unproductive) stint playing alongside centre Tomas Plekanec, Vanek was shifted to a unit with Desharnais and Pacioretty. The trio has been together ever since. What Therrien has enjoyed most about the acquisition is that it’s allowed him to try and spread more offence throughout his lineup.
Vanek made back-to-back trips to the Eastern Conference final with Buffalo during his first two seasons in the NHL and appreciates now that a player only gets so many opportunities to take a run at a Stanley Cup. He believes that the Habs have some of the necessary ingredients to make it happen.
“I think the teams that go far have great goaltending, they have depth in their lineup and they stay healthy,” said Vanek. “If you have those three things, you have a chance.”
No matter what happens from here on out, this will be a season that he remembers for the rest of his life. After spending nine years in the Sabres organization, the 30-year-old was dealt twice in a matter of months and could change teams yet again this summer as an unrestricted free agent.
He has already vowed to test the open market on July 1 before making a decision on his future.
Having the chance to experience different organizations has been something he’s enjoyed from a hockey perspective – “I made a lot of new friends,” he said with a smile – but Vanek acknowledges that it has been tough on his family. His wife, Ashley, and their three boys continue to live in Buffalo while he temporarily makes his home at a Montreal hotel.
One side benefit for the kids has been a lot of new team paraphernalia and Vanek’s oldest boy, seven-year-old Blake, has quickly become the “No. 1 Habs fan.”
“They’re loving this year the most,” Vanek said of his boys. “They’re getting new t-shirts, hats, jerseys.”