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New role for Vanek in first Canadiens home game

by Arpon Basu

MONTREAL -- When Thomas Vanek was traded by the New York Islanders minutes before the NHL Trade Deadline on March 5, he became the most prolific scorer acquired in a trade by the Montreal Canadiens in decades.

Since the start of the 2006-07 season, three players have scored more goals in the NHL than Vanek's 246: Alex Ovechkin, Jarome Iginla and Ilya Kovalchuk.

However, when Vanek plays his first home game for the Canadiens on Wednesday against the Boston Bruins (7:30 ET; NBCSN, RDS, TSN-Habs), he will line up on what has traditionally been Montreal's top defensive line.

Through Vanek's first two games with the Canadiens, he has played on the left side with center Tomas Plekanec and captain Brian Gionta, two of coach Michel Therrien's most trusted two-way forwards who are often given the mandate of shutting down the opposing team's top line.

It is a role Vanek never played in his time with the Buffalo Sabres and the Islanders, but he said he sees nothing wrong with being asked to do so at this stage of his 10-season career.

"I'm a defensive specialist," Vanek said Tuesday, tongue in cheek, "so there's a reason he put me on that line."

Vanek has yet to find the score sheet with the Canadiens, who've lost to the Phoenix Coyotes and San Jose Sharks by a combined score of 9-2. Therrien said he believes in the line he's created for Vanek and won't be too quick on the trigger to change it.

"I want to be patient with [Plekanec], I think that combination can work," Therrien said. "I have a lot of trust in Plekanec's game, I think he's good defensively and he's a guy that's good offensively as well. We'll give time to those two working together."

The one area where this might be a difficult assignment for Vanek is where on the ice he starts his shifts. While with the Islanders, Vanek began 41.7 percent of his shifts in the offensive zone, compared with 23.6 percent in the defensive zone, according to Plekanec has started 24.5 percent of his shifts in the offensive zone and 36.1 percent in the defensive zone.

The bulk of the offensive-zone shifts on the Canadiens go to the line of Max Pacioretty, David Desharnais and Brendan Gallagher. Vanek said he sees his role as a challenge to convince Therrien that his line deserves to get some more of those faceoffs in the opposing end of the ice.

"The games I've watched, even when I wasn't here, I think David's line with [Pacioretty] and [Gallagher] has been a force, so if the line is clicking, that's the line you want to go with," Vanek said. "So it's our line's job to make sure we push them and challenge for that."

If Vanek is able to make that happen, the Canadiens will benefit because it will mean he's accomplished the primary goal general manager Marc Bergevin had when acquiring him for forward prospect Sebastian Collberg and a second-round pick in the 2015 NHL Draft. That would be to balance the Canadiens attack, one that was supposed to run three lines deep but which has relied largely on the Desharnais line for offense most of the season.

Vanek also is being looked upon to help fix a power play that was second in the NHL with a 24.5 percent success rate on Dec. 3, but which has dropped to 13th because it is at 14.2 percent since.

Vanek practiced with Desharnais and Pacioretty on Montreal's top power-play unit Tuesday.

Even though he was acquired six days earlier, it was Vanek's first full practice with the Canadiens, who hadn't practiced aside from morning skates since Feb. 28. Vanek is hopeful the familiarity he's building will pay dividends sooner than later, and perhaps playing his first home game in front of 21,273 fans at Bell Centre against the Canadiens' biggest rival might spark that.

"I'm excited to be on the right side of it rather than the visiting side," Vanek said. "Coming in and playing in this building is hard. Now being part of it, I'm really going to enjoy it and make sure it's even harder for the other guys."

Those "other guys" Wednesday will be the Bruins, the team against which Vanek has had the most success in his career with 30 goals and 31 assists in 53 games. If there was ever a way for a Canadiens player to quickly endear himself to the Montreal fans, defeating the Bruins would probably be at the top of the list.

"The last four or five years Boston has been one of the better teams in the League, and you want to play your best against the best teams," he said. "I think sometimes it's just that the numbers are numbers and I can't really tell you why that is. But I can tell you it's a big game, it's a great team, and you want to play in big games."

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