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Vanek answers call with breakout performance

Last June, when Lindy Ruff was awarded the Jack Adams trophy as the NHL's top coach, the first Sabres player to call with congratulations was Chris Drury. The second call came from a much less predictable source -- Thomas Vanek.

Ruff, after all, had just put Vanek through the most humbling experience of his life, benching him for much of Buffalo's playoff run. Vanek could have been resentful. But the phone call was a telling gesture, a way for Vanek to acknowledge that he would learn from his benching, and it would make him better.

Vanek wasn't ready for the heightened demands of the Stanley Cup playoffs as a rookie. But he was a different player this season, a more responsible two-way player and an offensive force with 43 goals and an NHL-leading plus-47 rating. And when the playoffs came around this year, Vanek was determined to be ready.

He was solid in the opening-round series against the Islanders. Like his team, though, Vanek seemed to be playing in a lower gear, holding a little bit back. But when the second round began Wednesday night against the surging New York Rangers, Vanek truly arrived as a playoff performer.

Vanek scored two goals in a 4:05 span late in the second period as the Sabres shattered a scoreless tie and went on to a 5-2 victory over the Rangers in the first game of their Eastern Conference semifinal series at HSBC Arena.

The Sabres were wondering if they would ever get a puck past Rangers goalie Henrik Lundqvist when Vanek deflected a Dmitri Kalinin shot into the net with 5:41 to break the 0-0 tie on the power play.

Like Vanek, Lundqvist had struggled mightily in the playoffs a year ago as a rookie. But Lundqvist was dominant in the opening-round sweep of Atlanta and was on top of his form at the start Wednesday, stopping everything the Sabres threw at him for more than half the game.

Halfway through Game One, Buffalo fans had to be a tad uneasy, wondering if the Rangers were as formidable an opponent as the hockey experts were saying. Lundqvist had come into the series on a roll, having allowed just 70 goals in his last 41 games and shut down the Thrashers in an opening-round sweep.

Then Vanek struck, and everything seemed to change. The Sabres seemed to smell blood at that point. For the first time in this postseason, they became the swarming, offensive juggernaut we'd seen so often during the regular year.

"I mean, with two goalies like Lundqvist and [Ryan] Miller, if you get the first one it's a huge advantage," Vanek said. "So yes, it was big. I think Dmitri was aiming for my stick for sure."

Vanek scored again with 1:36 left in the second period on a gorgeous individual effort, taking the puck along the right boards, skating to the front and wiring a wrist shot past Lundqvist to make it 3-0.

A year ago, it was chic to talk about the Sabres as a team without any real stars. But they're loaded with stars now, and Vanek has the potential to be the biggest of them all. He's on the verge of being a superstar, and it wouldn't be a shock if some team made a massive restricted offer to him and forced Buffalo to match.

Some day, we'll look back at this night as when Vanek came of age as a Stanley Cup star. Ruff said he has seen it coming.

"It's been a learning year," Ruff said. "It's been a growing year. It's been a maturing year, and I still feel it is. That was a big-time tip, and that was a big-time goal he came up with late in the second period."

Scary as it sounds, you get the impression from Ruff that Vanek is still just scratching the surface, that he can get a lot better. Some day, if this keeps up, Ruff might be the one making the call -- to congratulate Vanek on winning the Conn Smythe.

e-mail: jsullivan@buffnews.com

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