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Of all the images the Rochester Americans could've used in advertisements for tonight's game in HSBC Arena, they chose Thomas Vanek's.

The blue-chip prospect represents the future of the Buffalo Sabres and the excitement surrounding the Amerks' season.

Vanek also could be the poster boy for Rochester's poor start. There are many reasons why the Amerks head into their 7:30 p.m. game against the Cincinnati Mighty Ducks with one of the three worst records in the 28-team American Hockey League.

Defense has been abhorrent. Goaltending has been mediocre. Even-strength scoring has been infrequent.

But no one on the roster sums it up like Vanek, who entered his rookie campaign as a symbol for organizational hope on a team projected as a Calder Cup contender that is 1-4-2-1.

The fifth overall selection of the 2003 draft would have been a candidate to make the Sabres out of training camp -- had there been one. Fans were eager to see the explosive University of Minnesota winger perform.

But only five games into Vanek's pro career he was a healthy scratch on a winless team.

"It's definitely mentally tough," Vanek said after Thursday's practice in Blue Cross Arena. "You expect to play more, and you know you can't play more. It's frustrating, but you can't whine about it. You just show up in practice and show them what you can do there, I guess."

Vanek has livened up a bit since he was benched. At the time he had zero points, nine shots and a minus-3 rating through four games. In the three games since he has a power-play goal, nine shots and a minus-1 rating.

"You can't step into any league right out of college and be great," Amerks captain Chris Taylor said. "He's had some learning adjustments, but he's come back the last three games and played really well. I like his aggressiveness. He's getting shots on net. He's being creative."

Like many before him, Vanek has discovered the transition from college hockey to the pros can be rather challenging, even for one of the NCAA's greatest offensive threats.

Tonight will mark Vanek's return to the ice where, as a freshman, he led Minnesota to the 2003 NCAA title. He was Minnesota's leading scorer again last season, but points in the AHL haven't been plentiful so far.

"College hockey is more skating, passing and making plays happen," Vanek said. "Here it's more dumping it in and more grinding it out.

"I feel comfortable I can do the same as I did in college and juniors. It's just getting the right bounces and a little luck. I feel fine out there; I don't feel lost. I think I can contribute here just like I did everywhere else."

Amerks coach Randy Cunneyworth said he's pleased with the way Vanek protects the puck, goes to the net and releases his shot. The 20-year-old Austrian now has to concentrate on putting together a complete game.

"His start symbolizes how difficult the league is, the quality of the players he's got to do battle with," Cunneyworth said. "It's more about going out there and competing in all areas, not just one where you've excelled. Being successful means you have to excel in the neutral zone and the defensive zone as well."

Vanek could have returned to Minnesota for two more seasons, but he's still pleased with his decision to turn pro.

"I moved on," Vanek said. "I still follow (Minnesota) and I hope they do well, but it was my decision, and I don't regret it. I still think I'm ready to move on even though it's not working out too great right now. In the end I think it's going to work out just fine. There's a lot of season left."

Goalie Ryan Miller also has stumbled out of the gate but is starting to play better. He started 0-3 with a 5.64 goals-against average and an .833 save percentage. He has since cut his GAA by nearly two goals and has raised his save percentage by 43 points.

"He's average right now," Cunneyworth said of Buffalo's opening-night starter last season. "But strong defense and exceptional goaltending go hand-in-hand. We've seen bits and pieces of incredible goaltending, and we've had excellent defense at times. But it's been too inconsistent."

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