LW Vanek’s hot hand has Sabres off to fast start

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 centered 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 preseason game two weeks ago.

Adam, last season’s American Hockey League rookie of the year, was

inserted at center 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 6-foot-2, 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

offense 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 center Ville Leino has provided Ruff an opportunity to

spread his offense 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.