BROSSARD, Que. – It is Thomas Vanek’s turn to feel the heat.
The veteran forward suddenly became a target among fans and media in Montreal for his lack of production as the Canadiens dropped the opening two games of the NHL Eastern Conference final at home.
It was given more fuel Wednesday as coach Michel Therrien dropped the team’s marquee trade deadline pickup to the fourth line, although that put him with his former Buffalo teammate Daniel Briere in a potentially dangerous scoring duo.
In fact, three of the four lines were changed, with only the top unit of centre David Desharnais between Max Pacioretty and Brendan Gallagher intact.
The Canadiens are looking to get their attack going after scoring only three goals in the opening two games of the best-of-seven series against Rangers goaltender Henrik Lundqvist.
“Obviously we have to find a way to score some goals,” said defenceman Andrei Markov. “It’s not easy but we have to try our best. Maybe we have to adjust something.”
The second line had Tomas Plekanec with Alex Galchenyuk and Brian Gionta on the wings, while third-line centre Lars Eller was with Rene Bourque and Dale Weise. Brandon Prust skated with Briere and Vanek.
Therrien cautioned not to read too much into it as it all could change again ahead of Game 3 on Thursday night in New York.
“One thing, the Plekanec line needs to give us more,” the coach offered. “I’m ready to stick sometimes with combinations and with three guys working together as long as I see results.
“Sometimes the results are not there but the chances are there. But if I see there are no chances, not much happening, now I’m at a point where I have to make some decisions. Hopefully by making some changes, something’s going to happen.
Plekanec had been playing with Vanek, who had no points and was minus-3 with one shot on goal in the opening two games against the Rangers: a 7-2 wipeout on Saturday and a 3-1 loss on Monday night.
He has been slammed for a perceived lack of effort and involvement, and some are starting to call him Thomas Vanish. It wasn’t long ago, Vanek was being hailed as prime pickup and many were wondering if the team’s long playoff run would convince the impending unrestricted free agent to stay in Montreal.
Such are the emotional ups and down of the playoffs, as Pacioretty knows well.
Fans were on his back as he struggled to score in the opening-round sweep of Tampa Bay and the start of the second round against Boston, before finally finding his scoring range late in the conference semifinal.
The big winger leapt to Vanek’s defence.
He called scoring goals “the hardest job in the world.”
“In playoffs it’s even harder,” he said. “If you walked into one of (the Rangers) meetings, they’ll talk about a guy like Thomas Vanek and they talk about him around the net and having to play physical on him. Being expected to deliver every night, it’s impossible and you’ve seen it in these playoffs with numerous stories of different players.
“All you can ask now is, if they’re not contributing offensively, is to help out in other areas. He’s a great guy in the room as well. He’s helped me, especially through my slump. There’s other areas you can contribute. It’s not just on the scoreboard.”
Vanek is a subtle player who can go from moving slowly to quickly and back again on the same shift. He excels at making plays in traffic, even if the six-foot-two winger is not a particularly physical player.
In 13 playoff games, he has five goals and three assists, tied with Pacioretty for fourth in team scoring.
“He’s a veteran. He doesn’t need that,” added Pacioretty. “He’s contributed to this team’s success in the playoffs. He knows it. We all talk. He’s fine. He’s going to be fine.
“It seems there’s always got to be a story when you lose, and obviously, with the questions I’m being asked, that is the story right now. But he’s a tremendous player and he’s helped us a lot in these playoffs and he’ll continue to do that.”
Despite the result, the Canadiens actually came out of Game 2 with their confidence boosted by a strong game in which they outshot the Rangers 41-30.
They controlled much of the play in that game, especially in the first period, but got only a Pacioretty goal early in the first period past Lundqvist.
Their main concern is in goal, where Therrien said the largely untested Dustin Tokarski will get a second straight start in place of the injured Carey Price.
Tokarski was good in Game 2. Only one of the three goals he allowed would likely have been stopped by Price. The third goal, a one-timer wired to the top corner from the slot by Martin St. Louis, would have gone in if they had both Patrick Roy and Martin Brodeur in the net.
Price left after the second period of the series opener with a suspected right knee injury. At the time, Therrien said he could be back if Montreal reached the Stanley Cup final, but he has since modified that to saying they will see after the conference final if he can play in the next round.
In New York, the Rangers are hoping to have second-line centre Derick Brassard back. He suffered a suspected shoulder injury on a hit by Mike Weaver early in the first period of the opener and sat out Game 2.
He skated with the team on Wednesday and a decision will be made before the game on whether he can play.
The Gatineau, Que., native was disappointed to miss playing at the Bell Centre.
“Not only in Montreal, to be in a conference final, I was pretty frustrated,” he said. “There’s obviously a lot of emotion but when we won the game, I think I felt a little better.”