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Canadiens vs Coyotes Preview

Can the Habs two new additions push them over the Coyotes in their debuts?

Bruce Bennett

One night after taking on the Anaheim Ducks, the Montreal Canadiens are headed into the second leg of a Western back-to-back.

The stakes are high for both teams. In Phoenix, every point matters as the Coyotes claw for a playoff spot in a tough Western Conference. With their next closest targets seven or eight points way, it looks like the Coyotes and Stars are going to fight to the finish in an attempt to earn a playoff spot before the season's final twenty games are up.

The Coyotes are a middling squad by most measures, and the fact that they've been able to hang around in the playoff hunt makes them an interesting case. The 'yotes are mediocre at even strength, and don't enjoy any particular luck in the goal scoring department. Their goaltending, led by gold medal 3rd stringer Mike Smith, has been solid, as Smith has settled into a .924 even strength save percentage.

To this point, Phoenix has been abhorrent on the penalty kill and decent on the powerplay, ranking 29th and 11th respectively. With their two trade deadline acquisitions, however, the Coyotes may be in line for some improvement in both of those departments.

Martin Erat was acquired from the Washington Capitals for Rostislav Klesla, Chris Brown, and a 4th round pick. Previously acquired from Nashville in exchange for highly-touted Swedish prospect Filip Forsberg, Erat was far from the supplementary offensive weapon Washington thought they were acquiring. Erat scored at least 16 goals and 49 points in eight consecutive seasons with the Predators, but has managed only two goals in his 62 game tenure in the U.S. capital. Erat's unhappiness in D.C. was well-documented, and the Capitals bought lower on a player who has a respectable track record of consistent NHL scoring success. His $4.5M cap hit is of no consequence to a Phoenix team that has agreed to increase their spending, and with an even strength shooting percentage of zero so far this year, there's no where to go but up. Erat will get a huge upgrade in linemate talent as he moves to the southwest, leaving Troy Brouwer and likely taking on Mike Ribeiro and Radim Vrbata, and will likely slot in on the second unit powerplay. There are no guarantees when a player is as cold as the Czech sniper, but for a team that is only average on offence, Erat may end up representing a significant upgrade.

Of course, no conversation about offensive upgrades could be considered complete right now without talking about Thomas Vanek. The new Canadiens winger sent a tidal wave of anticipation over the city of Montreal, vaulting them into the realm of contenders in an Eastern Conference that doesn't run much deeper than Boston, Pittsburgh, Montreal, and perhaps the New York Rangers. Vanek brings top line skill, and balances out a top nine that had depth but lacked scoring punch. Vanek has that scoring punch in spades, managing nearly a point per game in each of his last five seasons, including this one. Michel Therrien is playing his cards close to the vest, but my personal preferred lineup has Vanek joining the exploitation line of Max Pacioretty and David Desharnais. Regardless of where Vanek ends up, the Canadiens are virtually assured of having four talented, balanced lines that should be able to go toe-to-toe with anyone in the East. Another bonus is Vanek's skill on the powerplay, where the Canadiens are missing a second front-end finisher. The Habs have been heavily reliant on their outstanding penalty killing and goaltending to-date, and if their play can rise to a similar standard of quality, the Canadiens will become dangerous.

The other significant improvement brought about by Marc Bergevin on deadline day is the acquisition of former Florida defenceman Mike Weaver. The veteran is something of a defensive specialist, and is capable of doing at even strength what I imagine Canadiens' management thinks Douglas Murray can. That is, Weaver will play a low-risk game while moving pucks out of his zone, maintaining a physical presence, and providing stability for whomever he is paired with. On a Canadiens defence corps that has been obviously short top-4, right-handed talent, Weaver should be a welcome addition to J.J. Daigneault's pairings.

For the Phoenix Coyotes, tonight is about keeping pace in a season where they desperately need to make the playoffs. For Montreal, the game is also about jockeying for seeding, but it's about much more than that, too. When the Canadiens and Coyotes last met, an encouraging victory gave way to EOTP suggesting that the Habs may be on the verge of a turn-around. Since that time, the Canadiens have continued down the same path that they were before, where somehow, inconsistency begets success in the standings. As Montreal lines up against Phoenix for a second time, they again find themselves in need of a turn-around. Marc Bergevin has stepped up, and dictated that a change the team is changing direction from average to ascendant. Now, it's time to see if the team and its coaches can make good on his wager.