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HOCKEY, VANEK'S SCORING TOUCH RETURN

If they were missing hockey before, they're really missing it now.

More than 12,000 fans congregated Friday night to watch the Rochester Americans play the Cincinnati Mighty Ducks in the otherwise-desolate HSBC Arena.

The night went according to script: The Buffalo Sabres' minor-league affiliate posted a 3-1 victory; 2003 first-round draft pick Thomas Vanek scored two goals, including the winner; goalie of the future Ryan Miller was sound; and a Peters got into a fight -- not the Sabres' Andrew, but big brother Geoff.

And while the game was enthralling for hockey-impoverished locals, it was a bittersweet reminder of all that's been lost.

The Sabres were supposed to be hosting the Philadelphia Flyers downtown. It would have been the 11th game of the season if not for the NHL lockout, a dastardly disruption with no end in sight.

In search of a one-night reprieve, the Amerks set a home attendance record as 12,126 fans buzzed into the arena. The late-arriving crowd was still backed outside the arena doors at the start of the game, and lines at the concession stands were long.

"It's part of our job right now with the hunger the fans have to portray the game in a good light," Miller said. "We're the show right now in Western New York, and a lot of people showed up to support us. I was excited so many people turned out. It was a great chance for us to showcase. It's good to see hockey is still strong in people's minds."

The Amerks hadn't put on much of a show so far this season. Friday was only their second victory in nine games (2-4-2-1), and captain Chris Taylor claimed the venue played a role.

"You're crazy if you don't think inside, 'I'd like to be playing here,' " Taylor said. "Of course, there's a little extra jump in your step. You know all the scouts are going to be here for Buffalo, and the young guys played really well."

Vanek gave the fans something to cheer about early. The dynamic Austrian winger was playing his first game in Buffalo since his dazzling display at the 2003 Frozen Four, when he scored both winning goals in leading the University of Minnesota to the NCAA title.

Vanek skated onto the HSBC Arena ice like it was his second home, picking up right where he left off with a pair of first-period goals.

"This is where I won my championship in college, and it's a good building for me," Vanek said. "I try to play every night the same, but this is the building where I definitely want to play for a long time."

His first goal came on a power play. Set up by Taylor's crisp pass from the right circle, Vanek tapped the puck inside the left post to beat Ducks goalie Ilya Bryzgalov at 6:56.

Vanek's second goal was highlight-reel caliber.

The Amerks were making a line change as Vanek was crossing the red line near the right boards. He softly chipped the puck off the wall and then burst inside Ducks defenseman Tomas Malec, collecting the puck on the other side of the blue line. Vanek teed up in the right circle and ripped his shot inside the far post with 8:09 left in the period.

"It's nice to get a couple of goals, but it's the win that matters," Vanek said. "We've been struggling, so getting a win is a good start for our weekend."

He had a few chances to record his first pro hat trick, but Vanek was shaking his head after one glorious opportunity was frittered away with 4:53 remaining in the second period.

Taylor blocked a shot just inside the blue line, and it appeared as the playmaking center would have a two-on-none break with Vanek on his left, but the play was whistled dead when Amerks defenseman Steve Lingren and Ducks winger Sheldon Brookbank dropped their gloves to fight.

Paul Gaustad scored the Amerks' other goal 4:43 into the second period, converting a point-blank rebound on a Daniel Paille slap shot.

Miller, who had been rocked in a few of his starts, made 29 saves in his best game of the season.

The only blemish came with 4:58 to play in the first period, when Malec made an impressive play to cut the Amerks' lead in half. Malec weaved through defensemen Nathan Paetsch and Lingren and into the low slot, where he fired a shot on Miller and potted his own rebound.

"Millsie was real sharp when he had to be, and he certainly was tested a lot," Amerks coach Randy Cunneyworth said. "We withstood everything they had.

"He's been feeling a little bit better and indicated late in the week he's been feeling really sharp. That's a good feeling, to hear him talk like that."

e-mail: tgraham@buffnews.com

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