For much of Saturday night, the new National Hockey League looked an awful lot like the old National Hockey League.
All those rules designed to create more offense? They didn't seem to matter for the first half of the Buffalo Sabres' preseason opener against the Washington Capitals in HSBC Arena.
Washington led, 1-0, after two periods. The announced crowd of 17,057 had to feel as though it was caught in a time warp -- unless the fans looked at the out-of-town scoreboard and noticed the Philadelphia Flyers had beaten the Atlanta Thrashers, 8-6.
Then there was a noticeable shift late in the second period. The fans started to see glimpses of the new NHL and, perhaps, the new Sabres.
They liked what they saw.
Rookie winger Thomas Vanek tied the game with 11:30 left in the third period and won it 34 seconds into sudden death to clinch a 3-2 Sabres victory. The Sabres came from behind twice in the third period, the first time on a power-play goal by Ales Kotalik.
"(Vanek) knows where to be," said Sabres co-captain Daniel Briere, who set up both Vanek goals. "He knows how to score. He's a game-breaker. It's fun for me, having a chance to play with a guy like that."
Vanek, who thrived in HSBC Arena with the University of Minnesota when he won the 2003 NCAA title and later with the Rochester Americans, rendered moot the shootout, which the NHL has implemented for all preseason games.
Vanek notched the only shootout goal, making a sweet move by tracing an imaginary circle around the puck before firing it past Maxime Daigneault.
"It's just something I practice," Vanek said of his rousing shot. "I don't know. Just playing around, you know?"
Martin Biron was given the first shot at establishing himself as the No. 1 goalie and fared well. He made 27 saves, not counting all three shootout attempts. The first goal he allowed came when Washington had two extra men; the other came on a rebound.
Ryan Miller served as Biron's backup and is expected to start when the Sabres play the Columbus Blue Jackets at 5 p.m. today in Nationwide Arena.
The referee tandem of veteran Bill McCreary and Craig Spada called a tight game. The massively rebuilding Capitals, one night after serving 33 penalty minutes in a 6-0 loss to the Carolina Hurricanes, spent 23 minutes in the box. The Sabres converted one of eight power plays; the Capitals scored on one of six.
"With the referees coming into the room before the game and explaining the rules," Briere said, "everybody was kind of hesitating when we got on the ice. Everybody's wondering, 'Can I do this? Can I do that?' We were a little shy. As the game went on the flow was getting better and better. I thought it was exciting in the third period."
Washington winger Matt Pettinger scored a five-on-three goal 8:58 into the game, shortly after Biron broke one of the NHL's new rules by playing the puck in the unplayable zone. Goalies aren't allowed to touch the puck behind the goal line when it's outside the trapezoid behind the cage.
Neither team scored again until the third period. Capitals starting goalie Olaf Kolzig turned away all 21 shots he faced before giving way to Daigneault at the second intermission.
"We really got going in the second half of the second period and in the third period," Biron said. "We got good scoring chances, we got the puck to the net, we got our speed going. I think more and more throughout the preseason you're going to see the new NHL, where they will pick up speed and not have those dull moments."
Kotalik finally put the Sabres on the scoreboard 3:07 into the third period, firing a wrister from between the tops of the circles. The Capitals took another lead just 2:03 later, when Bryan Muir converted a point-blank rebound over a sprawled-out Biron.
But Vanek tied the score again, beating Daigneault on a one-timer from the point off a pass from Briere.
"I thought it was awesome just to get back in the building and get the game day preparation going and the reaction from the fans," Sabres coach Lindy Ruff said. "Once the fans got into it late in the second, you could feel the energy in the building."