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Wednesday, April 25, 2007
Hardships? That's so last year for Sabres' Vanek

By Scott Burnside
ESPN.com

BUFFALO -- The temptation in dissecting the Buffalo Sabres' impressive, at times mesmerizing, 5-2 victory over the New York Rangers in the opening game of their second-round series is to chalk it all up to speed and skill.

There was plenty of that on display as the Sabres put on a clinic in puck movement and creativity in handing the Rangers their first loss of the postseason.

Thomas Vanek
Sabres winger Thomas Vanek has four goals and two assists so far this postseason.

But the underlying theme of this victory is one of accountability. The idea that, regardless of how skilled a player is, if he doesn't do the heavy lifting, if he isn't in shape or doesn't work hard or won't backcheck, he's nowhere on this Buffalo team.

Witness Thomas Vanek.

In a 4:05 span late in the second period, Vanek scored twice to turn a scoreless game into a Buffalo cakewalk. He did so by making a lovely deflection on Dmitri Kalinin's power-play point shot. Then, he swooped down the left side, patiently slid into the slot and ripped a shot over Henrik Lundqvist's left shoulder to make it 3-0 with just 1:36 left in the second, sucking the life out of the Rangers.

It's hard to know when a player becomes a star, but a night like Wednesday goes a long way in reinforcing that in many people's eyes.

Still, as recently as the Sabres' first-round series against the New York Islanders, Vanek saw his ice time cut back to below 12 minutes as Sabres coach Lindy Ruff sought more defensive responsibility.

A season ago, Vanek, the fifth overall pick in the 2003 draft, played in 10 of the Sabres' 18 postseason games as Ruff believed he couldn't count on the cocksure native of Vienna, Austria.

Bottom line? Speed and skill may get you in the door, but conditioning and hard work get you on the dance floor (at least in Ruff's dance academy).

"It's been a learning year, it's been a growing year, it's been a maturing year. It still is," Ruff said of Vanek after Wednesday's game.

Vanek, for his part, has grown weary of the comparisons between this season and last. Even flush with victory, Vanek seemed peeved that the topic would rear its head again.

"I think it's just a year's experience. I've said it a million times. It was my first year. I was satisfied with it. Obviously, I wasn't happy the way it ended and we'll leave it at that," Vanek said.

He was asked whether this night was something he'd imagined when he arrived in the NHL.

More from Game 1
• Ranger defenseman Michal Rozsival, one of the team's steadiest defenders, left the game late in the first period with a leg injury and did not return. Rangers coach Tom Renney said he was day-to-day.

• The Rangers took 12 minutes worth of penalties compared to the Sabres' four minutes through two periods. Most of the penalties were fouls that came in response to the Sabres' speed, and offensive pressure generated by that speed.

"The thinking process seemed to go south beyond that and it is about the little things in the game. Buffalo clearly demonstrated how to do that [Wednesday night]," Renney said.

For the Rangers to get back in the series, they'll have to find a way to get them out of that groove again.

"We want to stay away from the track meet," Renney added. "They're just too quick. They're transition game is excellent, naturally, and they can score from any number of locations in their lineup. We've just got to be a little more intelligent team."

• The Rangers had a number of sterling scoring chances early, including one by Jaromir Jagr off a sweet Michael Nylander pass 28 seconds into Game 1. But Buffalo netminder Ryan Miller was stellar. Asked whether he thought an early goal might have changed the complexion of the game, Jagr was emphatic it wouldn't have. "This is a hockey game, not a soccer game," he said. "What, do you think we're going to shut them down for 60 minutes?"

• After threatening in the New York papers to "hurt" the Sabres, Sean Avery was naturally booed by the sellout crowd. His night included two minor penalties, three shots and four hits. He played 18:04 and was minus-3.

• The Sabres breathed a sigh of relief with their Game 1 victory. They are 1-13 when they lose Game 1 of a best-of-seven playoff series.

• During the lengthy video review of a Jason Pominville goal or no-goal with 6:13 left in the third, Canadian network TSN went to a shot of NHL commissioner Gary Bettman, who was on hand for the game. We wished he'd given the "goal" or "no goal" signal or even danced a little jig, a la Jeremy Roenick, just for fun. But, alas, he didn't.

• The Sabres announced their 45th consecutive sellout of the season. Hard to believe this is a team that was bankrupt and in danger of leaving town not so many years ago.

-- Scott Burnside

"I thought I was capable of doing it last year. Things just didn't go the right way," he said.

It was that kind of attitude that landed Vanek in the press box to begin with, but Ruff credits the 23-year-old with taking the lessons to heart.

"He's become a tremendous two-way player," Ruff said of Vanek, who doubled his offensive output this sophomore season with 43 goals and 41 assists. His two goals Wednesday give him four goals and six points in six games this postseason. On Wednesday, he played 15:22 and his five shots were tied for the most of any player on either team.

"I think it all started with conditioning," Ruff said.

Last season, Vanek wasn't in top condition. As a result, he couldn't produce over difficult stretches in the schedule. And when he played more or less every other night in the playoffs, Ruff decided not to take a chance. In the offseason, Ruff spoke to Vanek about getting in better shape so his game would improve. Vanek responded.

"He deserves a lot of the credit. The player still has to do it," Ruff said.

Was he worried Vanek might not have put in the work?

"You always worry," Ruff said. You can push a player "and you don't know if they're going to kick back or if they're going to adhere and believe you. Some players kick back. Some players decide to move forward."

The messages Ruff sends are pointed and leave little room for interpretation.

Back in Game 5 of the Islanders series, when Ruff was displeased with the play of Vanek and linemates Maxim Afinogenov and Derek Roy, he allotted more ice time to his "fourth line" of Adam Mair, Tim Connolly and Ales Kotalik. That line was responsible for the Sabres' second goal Wednesday, a pretty little offering set up by a deft pass from Mair to Kotalik, who ripped a shot over Lundqvist's shoulder.

Ruff can afford to make those tough calls because his lineup is so deep. But similarly, when players see a talent like Vanek in the press box or on the bench, the implication is clear. No one gets a free pass.

Teammate Drew Stafford played college hockey against Vanek when he was at North Dakota and Vanek was a star at the University of Minnesota. Stafford continues to be impressed with Vanek's skill, but he also understands the journey of discovery the young player is traveling.

"In my career, I learned that early that you just can't get away with making passes and scoring goals," said Stafford, a rookie who was in the starting lineup Wednesday on a line with veterans Chris Drury and Dainius Zubrus. "Everyone goes through that period [of learning]."

The Sabres emerged from their first-round victory searching for something resembling their regular-season groove. With Vanek's help, they found it, and the results were emphatic.

Scott Burnside is the NHL writer for ESPN.com.