BUFFALO – Thomas Vanek has found his touch.
Vanek starts each season as a guy with an outside chance to win the Rocket Richard Trophy, but it wasn’t until the end of this campaign that he started to look – and feel – like his old self.
Now he’s carried that magic over the second season, which is great news for the Buffalo Sabres, who figure to be in a very low-scoring series with the Boston Bruins. You know, the kind of grind-it-out showdown where the one guy in the series with truly silky hands can make a serious impact.
Vanek hammered home a feed from linemate Derek Roy to give Buffalo a 1-0 first period advantage in a first round matchup they now lead by the same margin after a 2-1 Game 1 win over the Bruins on home ice Thursday night.
Maybe we should have seen this Vanek attack coming. After struggling to find the net for most of the season, Vanek closed out the campaign with five goals in his final two contests after missing six games with a groin injury. That final push gave him 28 goals on the season, a far cry from the 40-goal output he’s counted on to produce.
But all that was back when the games were merely regular and the ‘Austrian Assassin’ is looking more like the guy who, aside from either of the goalies, can be the difference-maker in this battle.
“This is as good as I’ve felt since training camp after a few nagging injuries here and there,” said Vanek, who also missed time with an upper-body ailment and an abdominal injury this season. “The last two weeks before the last two regular season games I got some good rehab in. I feel good.”
His coach does, too. Lindy Ruff had high praise for his sniper, though he’d still like to see him use that lethal release a little more.
“I thought he was great,” Ruff said. “Worked hard, scored a great goal. Probably one or two, I’d like him to shoot (instead).
“He’s played great since he came back. We need him. We need him to score. That was a real good display by Thomas.”
Roy, who plays between Vanek and Tim Kennedy, echoed Ruff’s comments.
“He’s playing with an edge, with an attitude,” Roy said. “He’s going to the net hard. I think he’s shooting the puck a lot more and he’s got a great shot and he’s got to use it. He’s got to keep shooting and our line has to keep going.”
The first game of this series played out like most expected in terms of yielding just three total goals, but the chances for both teams went well beyond what the final tally might have you believe. Ryan Miller, perhaps the best goalie in the league all season, was just a bit better than standout Bruins rookie Tuukka Rask, who also asserted himself well in the first post-season action of his NHL career.
Miller gave Rask his props, but said he can expect to see an increase in posteriors from Buffalo teammates as they make getting to the blue ice more and more of a priority.
“I’m just going to worry about their shooters,” Miller said when asked about the obvious goalie matchup. “He can do his business. He’s a very good goaltender, but we’re going to try and get to him.”
As for the surplus in scoring chances – Boston had 24 shots in the middle frame alone – Bruins coach Claude Julien believes part of that is just an outgrowth of the second efforts that color the sport in the spring.
“It’s playoff hockey, so the guys are going to give it everything they’ve got,” Julien said. “I think both teams certainly went hard to the net and threw as many pucks as they could at the net and there was some scoring chances, but then again both goaltenders did what they were expected to do, they both played well.”
Ruff also gave his take on how things opened up in the second, contrary to what was forecast for the series.
“They started going after it,” he said. “At the same time, we started trading some rushes and usually off scoring chances, rebounds come out, you’ve got guys driving the net and there’s going to be opportunities going the other way.”
Playoffs mean more than players pushing hard to the net; it also means them pushing each other around, as both teams did during extended, spirited scrums. To nobody’s surprise, Buffalo buzzsaw Patrick Kaleta was often in the middle of the action and had the bloodstained jersey to prove it.
They may call it the Northeast now, but this is still a good old-fashioned Adams Division duel and, the way Ruff sees it, Game 1 was merely confirmation this will be a smash-mouth series.
“The playoffs are a whole new ballgame,” he said. “It’s the intangibles, it’s the Kaletas, (Shawn) Thorntons, (Steve) Begins, players like that. You feel good when you’re cut, you feel good when you’ve blocked a shot, you feel good when you’ve got your nose broken and if you don’t, you don’t feel part of it.”
Feels good from here.
A GREAT VIEW
Having spent the vast majority of my entire hockey-loving life in Southern Ontario, just a short drive from Buffalo, I can now say it’s officially a shame Thursday night was my first trip into that pit of hockey passion.
The energy from the crowd is as organic as any place I’ve been and if you can spot two people in a row who aren’t wearing Sabres jerseys, you’ve probably missed about 10 minutes of the game looking.
My objectivity never completely abandoned me, but it sure was tough to stop the toe from tapping when the organ music chimed out the notes to prompt the forceful ‘Let’s go Buffalo!’ chant.
THN PUCK PANEL: SABRES DRAW FIRST BLOOD VS. BRUINS
THN’s Ryan Dixon and Ryan Kennedy are joined by the National Post’s Mike Traikos to discuss... Ryan Miller’s continued heroics in the Buffalo crease… The solid play of rookie Tuukka Rask… Thomas Vanek as a difference maker… And the size-versus-speed matchup that is being showcased in the series. PRODUCER: Ted Cooper
THN.com's Playoff Blogs, featuring analysis and opinion on the action from the night before, with insight on what happened and what it all means going forward, will appear daily throughout the NHL playoffs. Read more entries HERE.
Feeling Lucky? Subscribe or renew your subscription to The Hockey News and you and a guest could be going to the NHL Awards in Las Vegas!
Ryan Dixon is a writer and copy editor for The Hockey News magazine, the co-author of the book Hockey's Young Guns and a regular contributor to THN.com. His blog appears Thursdays and his column, Top Shelf, appears Wednesdays.
For more great profiles, news and views from the world of hockey, subscribe to The Hockey News magazine.