It was only a matter of time before Thomas Vanek was kept off the score sheet.
Well, at least officially, because shootout goals like the one Vanek scored Tuesday night to give the Buffalo Sabres an important divisional win over the Boston Bruins are not counted in a player's personal stats.
|Buffalo coach Lindy Ruff says Thomas Vanek deserves all the extra ice time he's getting. (Getty Images)|
In large part, the early success in Buffalo has been due to a different philosophical approach, one that emphasizes defense far more than in recent seasons and has helped goaltender Ryan Miller put up some of the best numbers in the league so far. Meanwhile, Vanek, a gifted, natural scorer, has been doing his thing as well, getting a league-leading seven goals in his first five games before adding the shootout clincher for his sixth.
Equally important has been the leadership shown by Vanek, who is the team's highest-paid player after signing a $50 million deal in July 2007. Vanek responded with 36 goals last season -- the 13th-highest total in the league but a personal drop-off -- and was challenged by coach Lindy Ruff to become a more complete player this season.
So far, so good.
"He came to camp in good shape and he's deserved all the extra ice time he's getting," Ruff said. "All the little areas of his game are getting better, his penalty killing, the forecheck pressure he's applying. He's the guy who's put the work in."
The upshot has been an impressive start for the Sabres, who were unable to recover from early struggles last season and ended up missing the playoffs after winning the Presidents' Trophy the year before. That was yet another in a string of low points for a franchise that has struggled through bankruptcy and more lean years than it cares to remember, made more frustrating because Buffalo appeared to be on the verge of greatness when it emerged from the lockout.
Funny thing is that the Sabres entered the new-world NHL with few expectations because they had missed the playoffs in the previous three seasons. What they had, though, was a high-octane lineup capable of playing a run-and-gun type of game that was ideally suited initially for the new emphasis on offense and produced one of the most dangerous attacks in the league. Buffalo made it to within a game of the Stanley Cup Finals in 2006 and then followed up by finishing first overall and returning to the Eastern Conference Finals.
However, the price of that success was an outflow of talent the team couldn't -- or wouldn't -- pay to keep. So by the time last season began, the Sabres were without its two co-captains and leading scorers, Daniel Briere and Chris Drury, who has signed elsewhere as free agents. By the time it ended, they were without star puck-moving defenseman Brian Campbell and, more important, they were on the outside looking in when the postseason began.
"I think the problem was we got spoiled from a couple of years before by having a lot of good, offensive players and winning a lot of high-scoring games," Vanek said. "Last year we lost a lot of tight games and we went on streaks where we lost five, six, seven games. We thought it's going to be February, March, we're going to put in 10, 12 in a row and be in the playoffs, but it doesn't happen in this league.
"Now it's different. Since training camp. the coaches have done a good job harping on us about winning tight games, playing good defensively and not giving up a lot of scoring chances. Our mentality has changed."
Even if the lineup looks much the same as it did and is led by the core young players -- Vanek, Miller, Derek Roy, Jason Pominville, Ales Kotalik and Paul Gaustad -- who have all been together now since the lockout ended. The only key roster change was in goal, where Patrick Lalime replaced Jocelyn Thibault as the backup, although Buffalo did start with veterans Craig Rivet -- who came over from San Jose in the offseason -- on the blue line.
Both defensemen are right-handed shots, something the Sabres lacked last season and that has made a noticeable impact on the team's improved transition game, although Rivet will miss the next couple of weeks after undergoing arthroscopic knee surgery Wednesday.
"It makes a huge difference," Vanek said. "Last year we had six left-handed defensemen and that makes it tough to break out sometimes. Now it's easier to move the puck out and to get our forwards going."
Particularly since everyone seems to have bought in to what Ruff and Co. have been preaching.
"The way the league is now, everyone is on lockdown every night," Miller said. "It's tough to generate chances, so it's up to our forward to dog the puck and come back hard and help the defense work the transitions. When you do that with the kind of talent we have here, the results are good."