The Montreal Canadiens made the biggest splash at the NHL trade deadline when they scooped up sniper Thomas Vanek from the New York Islanders from the bargain bin minutes before the clock struck midnight on player movement.
The Eastern Conference is fairly wide open once again this season, and the addition of Vanek puts the Canadiens among the top teams in the East.
Montreal already holds down the second seed in the Atlantic Division, and is third in the East behind the Pittsburgh Penguins and Boston Bruins.
Mostly thanks to Carey Price, the Canadiens have been able to keep the puck out of their net all season. They rank 8th in the league in goals against per game, but are 20th in goal scoring. Vanek addresses the goal scoring deficiency as he already scored 53 points this season with the Islanders and Buffalo Sabres.
Due to the new playoff format, the Canadiens will face one of their division rivals in the first round of the playoffs. Currently the Habs would face off against the Toronto Maple Leafs in the opening round. The Canadiens have split the first four games of the season against the Leafs, but the addition of Vanek would help put them over the top of Toronto’s spotty defense.
Montreal could very well play the Tampa Bay Lightning as well. These two teams met three times already this season with all three games going to overtime. Both teams won a shootout, and the Lightning won the rubber match 2-1 on overtime. The Lightning have been struggling recently, winning just three of their last 11 games, and traded away their captain and leading scorer Martin St. Louis at the deadline.
Montreal added a leading scorer while the Lightning subtracted theirs. It is not difficult to make an argument that that alone could switch the balance of power between a pair of teams who went to extra time in all three meetings this season.
If the Habs can win the first round they are looking at facing the Bruins in the Atlantic Division final.
The Habs are eight points back of the B’s in the standings but always play their most hated rival tough. They met twice already this season with the Habs coming out on top in both games, holding the Bruins to one goal in each matchup.
Montreal seems to have the number of Bruins goaltender Tuukka Rask. The Finnish netminder is one of the top goalies in the league, but has a career record of 2-10-2 against the Canadiens.
The Bruins have an excellent team and would have home ice advantage against the Habs in the postseason. However, Vanek has scored 30 goals and 61 points in 53 career games against the Bruins which could tilt the scales in favor of the Habs.
The only other team ahead of the Habs in the standings is the Penguins. The Habs have faced the Pens three times this season, winning two and being blown out 5-1 in the third meeting.
Pittsburgh has a very deep and talented roster, but their big question mark is in goal. Marc Andre Fleury is having another fine regular season, but his past four playoff performances have been disastrous.
Fleury is posting numbers nearly identical to his past three regular seasons, but in his last 31 playoff games he has a 3.18 goals against average and a .880 save percentage. Fleury handed over the crease to Tomas Vokoun in the first round last season, and the veteran netminder helped the Pens avoid a first round upset to the Islanders, and the Pens won their first playoff series since 2011.
There are many questions in the Eastern Conference this season, and no clear favorite. The addition of Vanek does not guarantee the Montreal Canadiens anything, but they certainly matchup well against any team in the Conference and have a chance to go very far in the East this season.