BUFFALO, N.Y. – Souvenirs and fond memories are not the only things Buffalo Sabres forward Thomas Vanek brought back from the team’s two-game, season-opening trip to Europe.
Vanek re-entered the United States with a potent scoring touch, too.
“What?” the two-time, 40-goal-scorer said with a laugh after practice Tuesday. “I didn’t have that before?”
Usually not this early in the season.
The often slow-starting Vanek has a team-leading five points (two goals, three assists) after helping the Sabres get off to a 2-0 start with wins over Anaheim at Helsinki on Friday, and Los Angeles at Berlin the following day. He is two points shy of his total in 12 games last October, and has already matched the production he had in his first nine games two seasons ago.
The Austrian-born Vanek will get an opportunity to test his touch on this side of the Atlantic on Friday, when the Sabres play their home opener against Carolina.
“It’s obviously a good start for myself,” Vanek said. “But, you can’t do this by yourself.”
The left-wing is referring to the help he’s getting from playing on a newly formed line centred by rookie Luke Adam and rounded out by first-year captain Jason Pominville. The trio has combined to score five of Buffalo’s eight goals.
The line was put together on what coach Lindy Ruff described as a whim before Buffalo’s final NHL pre-season game two weeks ago. Adam, last season’s American Hockey League rookie of the year, was inserted at centre to replace Derek Roy, who was nursing a minor shoulder injury.
“I just took a shot,” Ruff said. “It’s something when you put it together, you hope it works. … Right now, they’ve done a nice job for us.”
He’s particularly pleased with Vanek’s play, noting the winger has added a play-making style to his game after matching a career best with 41 assists last season. Ruff also noted that Vanek is using his six-foot-two, 207-pound frame to play a more physical style while being more responsible with the puck.
Pominville said Vanek has provided an all-around boost.
“He’s a big part of our team offensively,” Pominville said. “It’s nice if he can build on that confidence and feed off it. And I think he’s doing that right now.”
Buffalo’s 2003 first-round pick, Vanek has led the Sabres in goals in each of the past five seasons. Yet he isn’t bold enough to believe he or his linemates can maintain the two-game pace they’ve established.
“The season is long, and you’re going to have good stretches and bad stretches,” he said. “I think I’ve been around long enough where you welcome it and take it as they come. But it’s the same as when you win and lose games, you try to stay even keel.”
Vanek is accustomed to hot and cold streaks over his six-year NHL career. He opened last season with four goals and three assists in his first 15 games, and then closed with nine goals and 12 assists in his final 17 games to finish with a team-leading 73 points.
What’s encouraging is that his production has provided a glimpse of the potential the Sabres were hoping to get out of a revamped offence that lacked consistency and depth for much of the previous four seasons.
Adam’s sudden emergence, Roy’s return after he missed the second half of last season with a knee injury, and the addition of veteran free agent centre Ville Leino has provided Ruff an opportunity to spread his offence across three lines. That should make it more difficult for opponents to defend.
It’s a reason why Ruff opened the season by saying he has no intention of delegating numbers to rank his lines from first to fourth.
“Anybody who gets the most points will get credit for being the top line,” Ruff said.
No mistaking which line is No. 1 for now.
“It’s nice to have that label after two games,” Adam said. “It would be nicer to keep it there all year.”
NOTES: Forward Jochen Hecht was cleared for contact Tuesday for the first time since sustaining a concussion in practice two weeks ago. Ruff said it’s too early to rule out Hecht from playing Friday. … The Sabres returned from Germany early Sunday, and returned to practice on Monday. … After hosting Carolina, Buffalo will go on a four-game road trip.