Habs still have faith in slumping Vanek

NEW YORK -- Montreal Canadiens winger Thomas Vanek is struggling. That fact has become only magnified in wake of his team’s 2-0 series deficit heading into Game 3 of the Eastern Conference finals against the New York Rangers.

His scoring woes seemed particularly glaring in Game 2, when he eschewed a shot on a wide-open breakaway, opting instead to dish the puck to a teammate who was already tied up by a Rangers defender.

Life isn’t going to get much easier for the 30-year-old winger anytime soon with the Habs desperate to find a way to solve Rangers goaltender Henrik Lundqvist, who has been superb in the first pair of games at the Bell Centre.

In fact, Vanek spent time taking line rushes with the team’s fourth line recently, even if coach Michel Therrien said not to read too much into those combinations.

Therrien preemptively told reporters on a conference call Tuesday that Vanek was healthy, but has otherwise bristled talking about the impending unrestricted free agent.

Teammates came to Vanek’s defense on Wednesday, expressing faith that he will dig himself out of his slump soon.

“It’s funny. You know, in the Boston series, I think the first two games people started getting on him and then he had a big game where he scored a couple goals. That’s Thomas Vanek,” veteran center Daniel Briere said during the team's availability at a hotel in midtown Manhattan. “He’s dangerous. At any time he can come out and hurt you and make big, big plays. So, I’m not too worried about him. He’s too talented and he seems to find a way to get it done when you don’t expect him.”

The Habs are in need of some of those plays now, as they stare down a daunting two-game hole and feel their Stanley Cup hopes growing bleaker by the day.

After just one goal in Montreal’s first-round sweep of the Tampa Bay Lightning, Vanek recorded a pair of two-goal games against the Boston Bruins in the second round. He has been held off the score sheet in the first two games against the Rangers and has just one shot on goal the series.

This from a three-time 40-goal scorer who had 27 goals this season and reportedly spurned a long-term $50 million contract offer from the Islanders earlier this season.

“With guys and players like that, you’re always expected to get a ton of goals and a ton of points. If you don’t get them, people are going to start talking,” rugged winger Brandon Prust said. “We’re just worried about him playing the Montreal Canadiens style of hockey and staying positive. He’s a good player and someone we need to be good for us here.”

It’s not just the Canadiens’ playoff hopes that hinge on Vanek’s production, it’s his future prospects as well. With his lack of effectiveness heavily scrutinized this spring, many are wondering what sort of impact that will have on the interest he draws on the free-agent market this summer.

His stock appeared to take a hit before the trade deadline and it might continue to plummet if he can’t find a way to score soon.

One agent told ESPN.com that this slump might not have as adverse of an effect as some are speculating, considering Vanek has never been considered a lights-out playoff performer. As long as a team that wants to sign him does so with the understanding that he is a complementary player, the agent said, his value shouldn't fluctuate wildly as a result of a lackluster spring.

Regardless of whether he’s scoring, his teammates and coach say they will be satisfied if he can find other ways to contribute. That’s what Habs forward Max Pacioretty found when he went through a similar drought earlier this spring. He felt like he actually played his best hockey during the Tampa series, even if the numbers did not reflect that in the stats column.

“That’s what makes it all, in the end, almost laughable,” Pacioretty told reporters in Montreal on Wednesday before the team flew to New York. “One of my best stretches of hockey was probably when I was getting carved the most in the media. And that’s what makes this all enjoyable and part of the business.”