There's no telling what to expect when Thomas Vanek has the puck and last spring that was precisely the problem.
Vanek was a lost soul during his first trip through the Stanley Cup playoffs. Indecisive. Uncertain. Fearful of making a crucial mistake. His erratic play led the Buffalo Sabres to give him the night off in 10 of their 18 postseason games and dress Taylor Pyatt or Jiri Novotny in his place.
It's not unusual for a young player to meander aimlessly during the postseason, particularly offensive-minded talents of Vanek's ilk. They're ordered to pay increased attention to the defensive side of the game. They fret an error in judgment could cost their team a goal, which dulls their creative instincts. Instead of reacting they ponder, often to the point of paralysis, which renders them useless -- and expendable.
"Every game is a big game [in the playoffs]," Vanek said before Game Five of the Eastern Conference quarterfinals. "In a 82-game schedule, maybe you have a bad game or something and then you play the next night and you can regroup. If you don't play as well in one [postseason] game, one game will cost you a series. It's just being more consistent."
There was little doubt that Vanek had the makeup to withstand the postseason heat. He was The Show when the University of Minnesota won the 2003 Frozen Four at HSBC Arena, scoring in overtime in the semifinals, netting the winner in the title game, dazzling all the way. Logic suggested he had played himself beyond the reach of the Sabres, who held the fifth pick in that year's entry draft. How could four teams possibly take a pass? But pass on him they did, and the Gopher that Buffalo hockey fans had come to covet in the Frozen Four has emerged from his playoff doldrums in emphatic fashion.
The winning goal of Buffalo's series-clinching 4-3 victory over the New York Islanders was vintage Vanek. He burst down the left wing in full stride, leading a two-on-three with Derek Roy on his flank and Maxim Afinogenov trailing. Vanek went wide at the faceoff circle, ridding himself of defenseman Tom Poti, and angled in as if poised to snap a shot. As the Isles converged atop the crease, Vanek funneled a pass through the mass and dead onto the stick of the lurking Afinogenov. Who knew the goal, good for a 4-1 Sabres lead, would become their lifeboat at game's end?
Vanek played 11 minutes, 42 seconds in Game Five, the lowest total of any Sabre forward outside of Adam Mair (7:03). Vanek responded by averaging a team-high 58 seconds a shift, which could be interpreted as a plea for more ice time. But don't get the wrong idea. A tug-of-war it's not.
Ruff often parcels out time based on game situations, matchups and his sense of who's firing and who isn't. Vanek averaged 15 minutes through the first four games of the series. He tied for second in the team in series scoring with two goals and two assists. A breakout 43-goal regular-season, supplemented by a league-high 47 plus-minus rating, sent him into the postseason brimming with a confidence last possessed during his freshman season at Minnesota. This time, he was playoff-ready.
"It's a learning process and I think he learned from that last year," Daniel Briere said after Game Five. "I was very impressed with his last game in New York, the effort he put in. It was just an all-around great game on his part. And tonight he made another great play on Max's goal. Everybody was expecting him to just drop it right when he got inside the blue line. And I think Poti expected that too. Next thing you knew he was around him and that's when he dropped it, when everybody thought he was going to take it to the net. That's what Thomas is all about. You never know what to expect when he's coming down on you. And that's one of his biggest strengths."
"It just seems like he's a man on a mission," Roy said. "He's working really hard both ends of the ice and it seems like he's been doing that since training camp. He's growing as a player every game."
Dismay blanketed Vanek's face as he thought back to last spring. He'd played in all but one regular-season game, scored 25 goals, then was left to contemplate how he'd fallen so fast.
"I think it's hard for any athlete, watching, especially after you help your team get into the playoffs," he said. "The way it went last year I didn't want it to go. But it happened and it's in the past. I had a strong year this year and I just want to continue that in the playoffs."