A couple of weeks ago, as teams reconvened following the Olympic break, Lindy Ruff was singing the praises of the new NHL. Just look at the highlights, Ruff said. Every night you'll see five or six goals that'll make your skin tingle. This is the game come back to life, the sport the way it's supposed to be played.
Ruff's right. There are five or six highlight-reel goals being scored every night. It's just that lately they all seem to belong to his Buffalo Sabres.
The Sabres are advancing beyond good. They're pushing the meter to scary good. Flyers goaltender Antero Niittymaki said Saturday in Philly that it's like facing a team with four first lines. Managing partner Larry Quinn on Sunday equated playing his club to a game of Whack-A-Mole. Try to contain one line and another pops up, exasperating those wielding the mallet.
The last 12 Buffalo goals have been scored by 11 players. Even defenseman Teppo Numminen joined in the feeding frenzy, scoring his first goal since the lockout in the win over the Flyers. You have to figure it's only a matter of time before goaltenders Ryan Miller and Marty Biron start getting the itch. Has an NHL team ever batted around?
There's no telling what Buffalo line is going to come out sizzling. The trio of Daniel Briere, Jochen Hecht and J.P. Dumont combined for 10 points in Philly. In Sunday's 6-2 rout of the Boston Bruins, Derek Roy, Thomas Vanek and Maxim Afinogenov owned the ice, totaling four goals among their seven points.
The three opened the scoring near the midway point of the first period with a goal that looked like the Soviets toying with Switzerland circa 1976. Afinogenov sprung his linemates for a two-on-one break. Roy fed the puck cross-crease to Vanek, who delayed an instant and fed it right back. Roy, his skates now behind the goal line, emerged uncontested and steered the puck into the open side. Bruins goaltender Andrew Raycroft opted to surrender rather than tear himself in half.
"Right away I saw Derek and I have a two-on-one, and I knew if Derek can get it over to me right away I can get it in myself," Vanek said. "I think the puck kind of rolled on Derek, and he had to settle it down, and once he passed it to me I think the goalie kind of read it, so I knew if I hold onto it for a split second and just give it right back Derek would have a pretty good chance on an open net."
Rule No. 1 when playing with Vanek. Always be aware.
"I gave him a pass and I saw the goalie slide over, so I figured he might not score so I was getting ready for a pass," Roy said. "Van has great vision. He saw me at the side of the net and made a great play."
Strange thing is, Vanek feels like an interloper playing alongside two teammates who've been cultivating their own chemistry since before the lockout. He's still striving to find his comfort zone, fit into the pre-established mix.
"Those two have a special knack together I don't think I quite have with those two," Vanek said.
If what he's saying is this line's just beginning to find itself, NHL beware. Vanek's instincts were true five minutes later when he wheeled in the Buffalo zone and spotted Afinogenov hitting the afterburners near center ice. A penalty shot and a 2-0 Buffalo lead resulted from the flawless pass.
Vanek wasn't finished. Not even close. He netted the fifth Buffalo goal on the power play. He scored No. 6 off a stirring individual effort, burning defenseman Nick Boynton along the sideboards, cutting defenseman Todd Gill off near the crease, leaving Raycroft fishing for a clue.
"They don't quit," Ruff said of his players. "It's not like, 'Let's ride this one out.' "
They've scored at least six goals in four of the last half-dozen games, 20 goals in the last three, the league's highlight reel transforming into their personal showcase.