Tuukka RaskBrian Babineau/NHLI/Getty ImagesConn Smythe Trophy favorite Tuukka Rask has proven solid in past postseason play.
It must have seemed like an eternity, but the wait is almost over for Boston Bruins fans, who finally get to see their team make its 2014 postseason debut tonight against the Detroit Red Wings. It’s the final first-round series to begin, and it has a couple of players who are among our favorites to win the Conn Smythe Trophy -- awarded to the most valuable player during the Stanley Cup playoffs.

The Bruins are ESPN.com’s consensus pick to win the Stanley Cup, in part because of their potentially easier path through the playoffs. If it happens, it’ll come with recognition for the Bruins' stars. Earlier this week, Bovada released its Conn Smythe odds -- here’s a look at some of the most intriguing choices before the betting lines shift too much:


Best bets among the favorites

Tuukka Rask, Boston Bruins (12-1)
Goalies are always a safe pick when it comes to the Conn Smythe, winning it 40 percent of the time over the last 10 postseasons. Last year, Patrick Kane prevented a third straight goalie from winning, although if he had a vote, he would have given it to teammate Corey Crawford. You don’t win a Stanley Cup without a strong performance from a goalie, and Rask is a proven playoff performer on a team that has the best path to the Stanley Cup finals.

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Nathan MacKinnonAP Photo/Jack DempseyNathan MacKinnon scored 63 points in 2013-14, and his ice time had increased by season's end.
DENVER -- Colorado Avalanche coach Patrick Roy was a 20-year-old when he first had the opportunity to play in the NHL playoffs, backstopping the Montreal Canadiens. For reasons he can't remember now -- because he estimates he weighed about 165 pounds -- he was sitting in the sauna one day in preparation for the 1986 postseason.

He noticed Larry Robinson coming to join him, and he realized the veteran defenseman had already showered. Robinson was coming for a conversation.

"I said, He's not coming for a sauna, he's coming to talk to me," Roy said in telling the story after Wednesday's practice. "He said: 'Hey kid. The only thing I’m asking -- no bad goals.' From the first game, I was not thinking about winning the Stanley Cup, I was thinking 'no bad goals.'"

For Roy, it eased the pressure. Here was a veteran with five Stanley Cup rings telling him he didn't have to do anything by himself. He was part of a team. If he made the saves he needed to make, his teammates would take care of the rest.

"I understood what the players wanted," Roy said. "They just wanted me to play my game."

Roy shared that story after being asked about reasonable expectations for 18-year-old burgeoning star Nathan MacKinnon when the playoffs begin Thursday.

Roy eased the 2013 No. 1 overall pick into the lineup during his rookie season, but MacKinnon’s speed, quickness and confidence earned him more and more playing time and responsibility. With Matt Duchene out and John Mitchell questionable, MacKinnon is projected to center a line with Ryan O'Reilly and P.A. Parenteau. Production from MacKinnon is a critical part of the Avs' beating the Minnesota Wild in an evenly matched first-round series.

That wasn't the message from Roy, however. His expectations for MacKinnon aren't to produce offensively.

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Ranking postseason goalies 

April, 16, 2014
Apr 16
Jonathan QuickDon McPeak/USA TODAY SportsJonathan Quick has proved he can stand tall in the crease for the Kings.
With the playoff matchups set and the countdown to the postseason underway, we’re ranking the top playoff teams by position. On Monday, the forward groups were ranked. On Tuesday, it was the defensemen's turn. Today, here’s the ranking of the goaltending for the 16 playoff teams.

1. Los Angeles Kings

Team save percentage: .922
Short-handed save percentage: .879
Jonathan Quick career playoff save percentage: .929 (50 games)

The Kings are a near-perfectly constructed team up front and on defense, but it’s Quick who puts them over the top in comparisons to the Sharks and other Western Conference contenders. He’s a competitor with a Stanley Cup and loads of playoff experience, and he now has Olympic experience on his résumé. There’s not a better goalie to have on your side at the outset of the playoffs.

“With Quick in goal, they’ve probably got the most complete team in the NHL,” said a veteran scout.

2. Boston Bruins

Team save percentage: .928 (No. 1)
Short-handed save percentage: .884
Tuukka Rask career playoff save percentage: .930 (35 games)

If the Bruins won the Stanley Cup last spring, Rask would've been in the Conn Smythe conversation with Patrice Bergeron after finishing the playoffs with a league-best .940 save percentage.

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Bouwmeester & Pietrangelo Getty ImagesJay Bouwmeester and Alex Pietrangelo anchor the top defensive group competing in the playoffs.
With the playoff matchups set and the countdown to the playoffs underway, we’re ranking the top playoff teams by position. On Monday, the forward groups were ranked. Today, here’s the ranking of the 16 playoff defenseman groups:

1. St. Louis Blues
Goals against per game (GA/G): 2.29 (No. 3)
Penalty kill (PK): 85.7 percent (No. 2)
Points from defensemen: 182
Shots against per game (SA/G): 26.4

A full season together for Alex Pietrangelo and Jay Bouwmeester gives the Blues a legitimate shutdown pair that was still figuring out how to play together when the playoffs arrived last spring. Pietrangelo has had a season worthy of Norris Trophy consideration. The duo is still a little light on playoff experience, which is a concern; the two have played a total of 20 postseason games, or 18 fewer than Kings defenseman Slava Voynov.

Having those two and trusted veterans like Barret Jackman and Roman Polak allows coach Ken Hitchcock to get favorable matchups for Kevin Shattenkirk, a talented offensive defenseman who consistently puts up St. Louis’ best possession numbers.

2. Los Angeles Kings
GA/G: 2.05 (No. 1)
PK: 83.1 percent (No. 11)
Points from defensemen: 149
SA/G: 26.2

The defense has a mix of strong offensive puck movers such as Drew Doughty, Jake Muzzin and Voynov, along with defensive veterans Willie Mitchell, Robyn Regehr and Matt Greene.

Like everything Kings general manager Dean Lombardi builds, this defense was put together with a purpose, and if it remains healthy, it’s as good as any in hockey. Doughty is a game-changer whose puck-retrieval skills and ability to quickly transition to offense should help negate a strong possession team like the San Jose Sharks.

3. Chicago Blackhawks
GA/G: 2.58 (No. 12)
PK: 81.4 percent (No. 19)
Points from defensemen: 193
SA/G: 27.2

The one-two punch of pairs Duncan Keith and Brent Seabrook along with Niklas Hjalmarsson and Johnny Oduya is a huge weapon for coach Joel Quenneville.

Chicago’s second pair can play with any forward line, allowing Quenneville a chance to get Keith and Seabrook on the ice in moments where they can change the game.

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Barry TrotzFrederick Breedon/Getty ImagesBarry Trotz compiled 557 regular-season wins in 15 seasons as coach of the Predators.
It will be strange seeing someone other than Barry Trotz coaching the Nashville Predators next season, and equally strange seeing Trotz coaching a team other than the Nashville Predators.

One is a certainty, with the Predators announcing today that Trotz won’t be back as coach. The other is a near certainty, as coaches with Trotz’s experience and reputation rarely stay unemployed for very long.

So what’s next for both? Here are some options:

What’s next for the Nashville Predators

In acting quickly, the Predators have their choice of the available coaches, and there’s one name that stands out more than any other: Peter Laviolette.

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Milan LucicFrancois Lacasse/Getty ImagesThe line of David Krejci (No. 46), Milan Lucic (17) and Jarome Iginla has been dominant this season.
With the playoff matchups set and the countdown to the playoffs officially underway, we’re ranking all 16 playoff teams by position. Up first, we'll rank the forward groups. Note that the Corsi stats are courtesy of ExtraSkater.com, while the other stats are courtesy of NHL.com.

1. Boston Bruins
20-goal scorers: 5
5-on-5 goals for/against per game: 1.53
Corsi For percentage (CF%) (5-on-5, score close): 55 percent

The Bruins finished the season with two of the three most productive lines in hockey, with the Milan Lucic-David Krejci-Jarome Iginla line scoring more goals than any in the NHL, with a total of 55 when the players were on the ice together (per leftwinglock.com). And the amazing part was that it took time for Iginla to get completely comfortable.

“It did take us a while. I shouldn’t say us, it took me a while,” Iginla said. “Looch and Krejci have been consistent, had a good start. Mine was a little slower as far as getting results.”

Not too far behind was the trio of Reilly Smith, Patrice Bergeron and Brad Marchand. If you can put Loui Eriksson on your third line, you’re loaded at forward, and the Bruins definitely are. Claude Julien’s ability to confidently roll all four lines is a huge postseason advantage for the Bruins.

2. Chicago Blackhawks
20-goal scorers: 5
5-on-5 goals for/against: 1.27
CF% (5-on-5, score close): 55.7 percent

This is predicated on Jonathan Toews and Patrick Kane returning to the playoffs healthy and productive. When everyone is out there, the Blackhawks are loaded. Toews and Marian Hossa are as good as they come in terms of two-way forward play.

Patrick Sharp had one of the best seasons of his career. And you know guys like Andrew Shaw and Bryan Bickell will score big goals at some point in this postseason.

3. Philadelphia Flyers
20-goal scorers: 7
5-on-5 goals for/against: 0.96
CF% (5-on-5, score close): 49.2 percent

There’s definitely concern with the Flyers' goaltending and defense heading into the postseason, but you have to love their forward depth.

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James ReimerJohn E. Sokolowski/USA TODAY SportsToronto fans could be intrigued if the Leafs could still compete for the Cup ... or the No. 1 pick.
When the question was first posed to fans, the response from many was natural: Why fix something that’s perfect?

NHL playoff hockey is as good a product as there is. A playoff hockey game is better than anything played in March on college basketball courts or in the fall on baseball diamonds.

So when I posed the question on Twitter on how fans would improve the NHL playoffs, one response from @bodiva articulated the feelings of many: “They don’t need to change. Do you chip a bit more marble off the David?”

But let’s not confuse the playoff games themselves with the format. Look at March Madness. College basketball is a sport that a good number of casual sports fans manage to ignore for most of the regular season. Then, come March, everybody in the world has a bracket and is watching.

Even the president has a bracket, and we can’t even get him to attend a hockey game.

There’s plenty of room for the NHL to spice things up.

The NHL will never be confused with a league that is progressive, but if it were smart, it would look hard at some of these proposals submitted by hockey fans. They would dramatically change the spring landscape and make the hockey playoffs a must-watch not only for hockey fans but anyone who loves unscripted drama.

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Letang and MartinJustin K. Aller/Getty ImagesWith Kris Letang and Paul Martin back on the ice, Pittsburgh's defense group is as good as any.
Things are coming together quite nicely for the Pittsburgh Penguins as the playoffs close in, and not just because they beat their potential first-round opponent in the shootout on Wednesday night. With the impressive return of Kris Letang, the defense is shaping up to be as good as any in the East if everyone is healthy and playing well. Letang played 22:30 in his first game back and earned an assist, which is incredible considering the news of his stroke earlier this season.

Having Paul Martin and Letang both now both healthy and contributing will go a long way towards improving possession numbers that were average for the Penguins this season. With the score close, their Corsi For percentage (a metric that tracks shot attempts) is 49.7 percent this season, putting them at No. 15 in the league.

“Putting Paul Martin back in our lineup, almost immediately, you can see how it changes things for our team in terms of being able to not spend time in the defensive zone, being able to exit the zone with the puck,” head coach Dan Bylsma told Pittsburgh reporters on Wednesday. “Kris is very similar in that regard to Paul."

With the defense shaping up, the next sign the Penguins are ready to make a run is when Bylsma has a third line that he can trust in the playoffs. When you think back to what made the Cup-contending Penguins so good, it was due in large part to the play of Tyler Kennedy, Matt Cooke and Jordan Staal.

Pittsburgh will be tough to beat if the Penguins find a trio that can come close to duplicating what those three brought to the table.

“All three of us were just committed to not getting scored on,” said Cooke. “We committed to getting pucks in the offensive zone, committed to spending time there. There were games against Philly, games against Detroit that we didn’t score. Out of 15 minutes we spent probably 13 in the offensive zone, forcing teams to defend.”

One possibility is the line Bylsma used Wednesday night of Brandon Sutter, Lee Stempniak and Tanner Glass, although the health of Marcel Goc will factor in to that equation at some point in the postseason.

If Sutter plays well, like he did against Detroit, and anchors a line Bylsma can use as a shutdown trio, it frees up Sidney Crosby and the top six to focus on offense. It’s also a role Sutter is eager to reclaim, although with injuries this season isn’t one he’s had much opportunity to seize.

“That’s a role I like doing and something I challenge myself with,” Sutter said when we chatted recently. “It just doesn’t happen a whole lot.”

On a team loaded with stars, the play of a guy like Sutter and his linemates can make the difference in a playoff series. That’s how it is all over the league.

Here’s a look at seven other hinge players -- no goalies allowed, that's too easy -- whose success in the postseason could tip the balance of a tight series:

Thomas Vanek, Montreal Canadiens

Vanek is one of those players who you might not notice for stretches of time, but then he breaks the game open with a pass or goal only he can make.

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Henrik Sedin, John Tortorella and Daniel SedinGetty ImagesJohn Tortorella, center, and the Sedin twins face an uncertain future in Vancouver.
As teams are eliminated from the 2014 postseason, the focus shifts to next season, and we’ll be examining some of the teams expected to have the most interesting summers. Here’s an early look at the Vancouver Canucks’ offseason priorities, projected lineup for next season, free-agent targets, cap space and much more.

The facts

Points: 81 points (No. 23 in the NHL)

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Mike GillisAP Photo/The Canadian Press/Mark BlinchUntil 2013-14, the Vancouver Canucks made the playoffs for each season of Mike Gillis' tenure.
We’ll get more clarity over what comes next in Vancouver when Canucks owner Francesco Aquilini meets with the local media on Wednesday morning, but this much we know: team president and GM Mike Gillis is out.

Head coach John Tortorella is still around, for now. According to TSN.ca’s Bob McKenzie, Trevor Linden is expected to be named the new team president, which would still leave a hole at general manager for the Canucks.

Here’s a look at their best options to fill Gillis’ shoes:

1. Promote Laurence Gilman

He was the assistant GM under Gillis and is widely regarded as GM-in-waiting.

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Jarome Iginla, Marian HossaGetty ImagesThe Boston Bruins and Chicago Blackhawks are two of the top teams to beat come playoff time.
When the playoffs begin, there will be 16 teams with Stanley Cup dreams. When you break down the rosters, health and performances of those teams, however, six stand out as the heavyweights.

Pick a Stanley Cup winner from a group that includes the Boston Bruins, Los Angeles Kings, San Jose Sharks, St. Louis Blues, Anaheim Ducks and Chicago Blackhawks, and you can feel good about your chances. That’s not to say the Pittsburgh Penguins won’t get healthy enough to make a run or the Colorado Avalanche won’t get hot and surprise the loaded West, but it’s hard to find much wrong at all with the "Big Six."

And yet, one by one, they’re going to go down. At least, five of them will. Teams that have looked unbeatable for different stretches of the season are going to have their season end earlier than they want. Only one team can raise the Stanley Cup.

So how do you beat the best? How do you find a weakness on teams that look almost flawless as the playoffs close in? Here’s a starting point for each one:

Boston Bruins: Match their physicality

The Bruins are as well-rounded a team as there is in the game.

“They’re like a Western team,” said one GM, a major compliment this season. Four strong lines, a franchise defenseman and a goalie who should win the Vezina Trophy. So how do you beat them? Start by asking the team that does it fairly regularly.

“They’re obviously a big, strong team. They like to intimidate players. We had success against them because we haven’t let them push us around,” said Montreal’s Max Pacioretty. “A team like that, if you play afraid or you play scared, they’re going to jam it down your throats. Being able to attack them is always the game plan against them. It sounds simple, but it goes a long way against them.”

You can’t blink when their big forwards come flying in on the forecheck. The team to beat Boston will be one that has quick decision-makers on defense who don’t think twice while moving the puck out of the defensive zone. “They also don’t like being hit,” Pacioretty said. “When we’re delivering checks to them, it’s the way we want to play.”

Even that might not work. One Western Conference scout said the only way he sees the Bruins slowing down in the East is if someone gets hurt.

“You need an injury,” he said. “It doesn’t even need to be one of the big guys. They have a very nice lineup and everybody is slotted perfectly into position. Their first, second, third and fourth lines are perfectly set up. If one of those goes out it, it messes it up. If they have to move guys around, their other lines get out of whack and they struggle when that happens. Other than that, they have everything you could want.”

St. Louis Blues: Get an early lead

You’re toast if you let the Blues get into the third period with a lead. They are 33-0-4 when they lead after two periods.

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Gustav NyquistAP Photo/Tony DingGustav Nyquist and the Red Wings will be a tough out for top Eastern contenders like Boston.
There’s going to be one upset -- at least. That’s just how the NHL postseason works. It’s a league of parity, plus one of these teams battling to get in will just keep on rolling against a team that’s been coasting for weeks. Really, once you establish the 16 playoffs teams, you might as well eliminate the seedings next to their names.

Last year, lower-seeded teams in the Ottawa Senators, New York Rangers, Detroit Red Wings, San Jose Sharks and Los Angeles Kings all won their first-round series, with the lower seeds winning more games than the higher seeds overall in that round. Two of those upsets were No. 7 seeds (Ottawa and Detroit) beating the No. 2 teams in their conferences. The No. 3 team in the West (Vancouver) didn’t even win a single first-round game.

That’s the beauty of the NHL playoffs.

So as the playoff races enter their final games, the race for the final spots should be just as interesting to the fans of the contenders as it is to those teams vying for a spot because history suggests one of them is going to pull off a first-round upset.

Which is the most likely wild-card candidate to pull of a first-round upset? Here they are in order:

1. Detroit Red Wings

With the way the Red Wings are playing right now, you have to wonder if Mike Babcock’s approach to the regular season is similar to his approach to an Olympic tournament, because as he did with Team Canada, he has the Red Wings playing their best hockey at the perfect time. In this case, he’s doing it without some of his biggest horses. When I posed the question of which bubble team they’d least like to face, scouts didn’t hesitate.

“Start with the Wings,” said an Eastern Conference scout. “They definitely can [win the round]. You could argue they’re playing their best hockey of the season. They seemed to have gotten a lot of confidence.”

Young players like Gustav Nyquist, Tomas Tatar, Riley Sheahan, Luke Glendening and Tomas Jurco have been instrumental in helping Detroit surge into a playoff spot, and in the process proved they can compete at the highest level. That’s invaluable experience as Detroit’s regulars get healthy.

“I won’t go back to what I was before,” Tatar said when we chatted recently. “I knew I can play at this level. I feel better. I’m not sure how the [production] will go because you won’t get the minutes you will now, but the game won’t change for me. I know what I can do.”

Many of these Red Wings don’t have NHL playoff experience, but they believe their experience in winning a Calder Cup last year in the AHL helps provide framework on what to expect, and they don’t expect to go in and roll over if they make the playoffs.

“You go in and anything can happen,” said Glendening, who signed a three-year extension over the weekend then scored his first NHL goal. “You have to go in with a positive attitude. You’re ready to take on anyone you face.”

To put themselves in playoff position, the Red Wings have beaten high-end playoffs teams like the Pittsburgh Penguins, Boston Bruins and Tampa Bay Lightning, further bolstering their case as an upset candidate.

There are concerns on defense, with the loss of Jonathan Ericsson an often overlooked injury, but one that is as big as any because of Detroit’s lack of depth on defense. That was something Montreal was able to expose on Saturday in the Canadiens' win over Detroit. Both Henrik Zetterberg and Ericsson are possibilities to return in the first round. In the meantime, the youth and talent up front makes Detroit a tough draw for either Boston or Pittsburgh if the Red Wings make it.

“They’re really good players. Because they won a championship in the AHL they understand ... the grind, what it takes to win a championship,” said one longtime scout.

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Zdeno CharaEric Canha/CSMZdeno Chara and the Bruins, 52-18 this season, are easily the East's top-ranked team.
What’s the dream third line? What’s next for the Washington Capitals if they miss the playoffs? How would the Dallas Stars fare against the St. Louis Blues in the playoffs? Can anyone beat the Boston Bruins? All this and more in this week’s mailbag. If you have any questions for next week, send them in right here.

Can anyone beat the Bruins in the East? With the current streak they are on, is there any team that can stop them from reaching the finals again?
Brandon B
New York, N.Y.

I like everything about this Boston team. The Bruins are built perfectly for the playoffs, with four lines that can provide waves of offense. They have an all-world center in Patrice Bergeron whose game seems to rise as the stakes rise. They have a defenseman in Zdeno Chara who is a bona fide, intimidating shutdown defenseman, and Tuukka Rask is a legit Vezina candidate. Factor in the flaws of every other Eastern Conference team, and the Bruins should come out of the East.

But as you know, Brandon, the playoffs are unpredictable.

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Zdeno CharaRocky Widner/Getty ImagesWith eyes on a long playoff run, the Boston Bruins have reduced Zdeno Chara's ice time.
Any other player in the world and there might have been concern. But as we know by now, Patrice Bergeron really isn’t human. On Wednesday night against the Red Wings, he got his legs tangled with Drew Miller while shooting the puck. He hit the ice, was slow to get up and looked to be favoring his leg.

With the playoffs less than two weeks away, it’s a scary moment when arguably the most important player on the team favored to win the Stanley Cup goes down in a game that truly has little significance to that team.

But then again, it was Bergeron. The man who played through a punctured lung. Nothing to see here.

“Yeah, yeah, I’m fine,” he said, after the game. “Just took a few seconds to feel better and then it was good.”

The Boston Bruins were already playing without Jarome Iginla, scratched with a lower-body injury after skating Wednesday morning with the team. Bruins coach Claude Julien said Iginla would have been available for a playoff game, and that it wasn’t a major injury.

But these small moments are a reminder of the two things that could slow this runaway train in Boston: injuries and fatigue.

Even in this loss on Wednesday night, their first in regulation since March 1, they were dominant in puck possession and probably should have won if not for the individual heroics of Detroit’s Jimmy Howard and Gustav Nyquist.

Dougie Hamilton summed it up quite nicely.

“It’s kind of unbelievable that we lost,” he said, and really it was. “I don’t know how we lost.”

The Bruins and other teams around the league that have locked themselves into a playoff position are in a unique position as the regular season games wind down. They want to remain competitive, they want to perfect their overall games for the playoffs, but they want to be fresh and ready to go when the playoffs arrive. The notion of keeping their team fresh in Boston is one that’s been a constant all season with the Bruins, coming off a short summer and playing in their second consecutive condensed schedule because of the Olympics.

[+] EnlargePatrick Kane, Jonathan Toews
Jonathan Kozub/NHLI/Getty ImagesThe Blackhawks have shut Patrick Kane and Jonathan Toews down for the remainder of the regular season, in the hopes that they'll be close to 100 percent for the playoffs.
It’s the same for the defending champion Chicago Blackhawks, who have shut down Patrick Kane and Jonathan Toews for the rest of the regular season. At practice on Wednesday, Joel Quenneville shared word that Toews’ upper-body injury that originally was diagnosed as day-to-day would wipe out the remainder of his season.

“We’re going to be smart and make sure that he’s going to be 100 percent,” Quenneville told reporters after practice. “And he will be 100 percent." And if the next game were a playoff game? "Knowing Johnny Toews? No chance he’d be out of the game,” Quenneville said.

It’s smart for these teams to be cautious with their players and provide rest. And perhaps Wednesday gave us a glimpse into Claude Julien’s game plan the rest of the season.

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Thomas VanekEric Bolte/USA TODAY SportsThomas Vanek has 10 points in his last eight games with the Montreal Canadiens.
There are moments in practices, and sometimes in games, where the puck arrives and Max Pacioretty and David Desharnais just aren't ready for it. It’s not that it’s a bad pass or it puts them in a bad spot. Quite the opposite, really. One time against Buffalo, the puck arrived on Pacioretty’s stick, and he had an open net to shoot at. He ended up missing it completely.

“It shows I have to be ready for anything,” Pacioretty said when we chatted.

It’s the realization of playing with Thomas Vanek, a player so talented that playing with him is almost unlike playing with anyone else.

“You never expect that puck -- you should always expect it, but it has surprised me a couple times,” said Canadiens center Desharnais. “Every practice it happens at least once, usually I’m the setup guy. I should be aware he can pass it. It just goes through so many skates and sticks and right on the tape. I just have to get used to it."

Maybe Islanders general manager Garth Snow had it partially right in acquiring Vanek so early in the year. He’s a guy it’s going to take time to get used to playing with, so the more time to make the adjustment, the better.

It’s now starting to click for Vanek and his linemates Pacioretty and Desharnais.

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