BUFFALO, N.Y. – If not for the NHL lockout, Thomas Vanek would have missed a rare opportunity to return home to play in his native Austria.
The time off and the brief but sweet homecoming last fall did wonders for the Buffalo Sabres’ play-making forward. It was a European vacation Vanek credits for rekindling his passion for the game and helping him rediscover his scoring touch.
“Spending five weeks at home, I got to see how big the game had grown. I went back and every rink was sold out,” Vanek said by phone after the Sabres practiced at Long Island on Friday, a day before they were to face the Islanders. “And it just kind of made me realize how fun this game could be and how many people are following it. I think that’s the biggest lesson I got taught.”
Vanek’s newfound perspective has been on display through the first three weeks of the NHL season. He’s off to the most prolific start of his eight-year career, and finds himself leading the league with 10 goals and 21 points.
As he often does, Vanek pays no attention to the numbers he puts up. A four-time 30-goal-scorer, he’s also known for being streaky which leaves Vanek worried about when the next dry spell might surface.
“There’s no way I can keep this pace up,” said Vanek. “I know that. And I’m fine with that.”
What’s notably changed is his outlook.
“Hockey was always fun here in Buffalo from Day 1. But sometimes, when you’re in the tough times, missing the playoffs, I think you kind of forget,” he said. “And that’s what made me realize over there that you’ve got to work hard, but at the same time enjoy it, because before you know it, your ride might be over.”
The ride, for now, is showing no signs of slowing for Vanek, only the sixth Sabres player to reach 20 points through his first 10 games of a season.
Vanek has five multiple-point games already. He is coming off an outing in which he scored two third-period goals—including a game-tying tally with 2 seconds left—in rallying the Sabres to a 5-4 shootout victory over Montreal on Thursday.
The win snapped a three-game skid. Still, the Sabres have only won twice in nine games (2-6-1), and would do themselves a big favour to follow Vanek’s lead.
“It’s really about winning the next game already,” coach Lindy Ruff said. “It’s about putting this one behind us and focusing on getting better, getting on a run, because we’ve got some ground to make up.”
Ruff has plenty to be concerned about, including resurfacing questions about his job security. The one worry he doesn’t have is the production he’s getting out of Vanek.
“He’s had a history of running some hot streaks, and I think this is the best streak he’s ever put together,” Ruff said. “I think any time you get that confidence, get off to that great of a start, I think he’s fed off it.”
Vanek opened the season with a career-best five-point game in a 5-2 win over Philadelphia, and has at least a point in nine of the 10 games he’s played.
Whether it’s on power plays or breakaways, from his knees or during shootouts, Vanek has scored in nearly every situation this season playing on a line rounded out by Jason Pominville and centre Cody Hodgson.
There was the goal Vanek scored to cap his eighth career hat trick in a 7-4 win over Boston on Jan. 31. Driving in on the Bruins net on a 2-on-0 break, Vanek hit the brakes at the top of the crease and waited for Tuukka Rask to commit before shovelling the puck in over the fallen goalie to make it 6-4.
And then there were Vanek’s two goals against Montreal. After scoring on a power-play with 12:03 left to cut the Canadiens lead to 4-3, he capped a scramble in front by diving in head first to poke a loose puck through goalie Peter Budaj’s legs to force overtime.
As if that wasn’t enough, Vanek scored one of Buffalo’s two shootout goals to clinch the win.
“It’s awesome to watch. He’s been finding a way. He’s been magical,” forward Steve Ott said. “He wants to win in this dressing room, and he’s proven it to all of us.”
Vanek is playing with more patience. That’s something he also got out of playing on the much larger ice surfaces in Austria, where the extra space allowed him to be more creative.
“By playing the game over there, I kind of got my hands back, my vision,” Vanek said. “I think patience comes with confidence and, obviously, I’m feeling pretty good about my game.”
Already more than a third of the way to matching the 61 points he had last season, Vanek is maintaining a day-at-a-time approach.
“I know it’s a good streak that I’m on, but I don’t look at it like a hot streak,” Vanek said. “It might be over tomorrow or the next day. But even if it is, there’s a lot more games coming after that.”