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Vanek is missing link for Sabres

I don't mean to come off as an alarmist, but I'm starting to think the Sabres miss Thomas Vanek.
Sure, the Sabres have a history of compensating for the short-term loss of their top players. So when Vanek broke his jaw last Saturday night in Ottawa, it was tempting to assume that his teammates would rise above the loss of the NHL's third-leading goal-scorer.

Jason Pominville would snap out of the worst scoring funk of his career. Or Jochen Hecht would emerge from his season-long slumber. Coach Lindy Ruff even suggested that rookie Nathan Gerbe, who stayed in Buffalo after playing here for Portland the night before, might be the answer.

"We're just trying to replace Thomas' offense with someone who has gone pretty well offensively this year," said Ruff, showing surprising faith in a rookie who had just one point in a six-game NHL stint earlier in the season.

But if Wednesday's 3-1 loss to the Senators is any indication, it won't be quite so easy to replace Vanek and his 32 goals. His absence was palpable, especially on the power play, where the Sabres were a sorry 1 for 12. The Ottawa goal seemed wired shut, like Vanek's fractured jaw.

It's not just Vanek. Paul Gaustad is out with a separated shoulder. That means both of the guys who camp in front of opposing goaltenders on the power play aren't in the lineup right now. It shows.

"People tend to forget Goose in front of the net," said defenseman Craig Rivet. "Both of those guys are big guys who take a lot of abuse in front of that net and stay there. It seemed when we did have shots tonight, the goaltender was seeing the puck too much.

"Obviously, it was a big reason for the outcome," Rivet said.

Derek Roy, Tim Connolly and Drew Stafford all logged more than 13 minutes on the power play, Jaroslav Spacek and Pominville more than 11. The strain showed in the third. Stafford assumed Vanek's role in front of the net on the No. 1 power play. During a six-minute power play that ended the second period, Stafford was called for cross-checking when he tried to assert his position in front of Senators goalie Brian Elliott.
Evidently, he's no Vanek. You don't replace a guy with such dynamic offensive presence. Suddenly, the major concern of last autumn -- a lack of scoring depth -- is beginning to rear its head again. If their slumping forwards don't start scoring, it could be a crisis very soon.

The Sabres seemed poised to make a run at fourth place after their promising road trip. But taking only one point in two games against a reeling Senators team is a troubling sign. That's no way to assert yourself as a Stanley Cup contender.

Meanwhile, the teams behind them in the East aren't going anywhere. Florida keeps winning. Carolina and Pittsburgh have both beaten San Jose in recent days and sit just three points back of the Sabres.

So if the Sabres don't start scoring, they're more likely to fall into ninth or 10th than make a serious run at fourth. They rode Ryan Miller for more than a month. But Miller's hot play obscured the fact that several of the team's offensive players were in goal-scoring slumps.
They can't expect Miller to be perfect. He let a Daniel Alfredsson blast slip between his legs for the third Ottawa goal. But it didn't really matter. The Sabres had 11 chances five-on-four and didn't score once.

The final indignity came with under two minutes to play, when Nick Foligno ran over Miller and was whistled for goalie interference. The Sabres were squandering one final power play when the final horn sounded, to the accompaniment of the booing crowd.

e-mail: jsullivan@buffnews.com

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