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30 seconds of playoff joy; Father and son from Austria, hoping to see national hero Thomas Vanek play, only saw last 30 seconds of Game Four

Alois and Thomas Lindner missed all but 30 seconds of the Sabres' win over the Flyers on Wednesday night, but they still might be the happiest Sabres fans around.

It's even more likely that no one traveled farther to the game than they did.

The father-son tandem came to Buffalo from Austria this week to soak in the atmosphere in HSBC Arena and to catch a glimpse of their favorite hockey player and their national hero, Thomas Vanek.

They started mapping their overseas trip April 8, the day the Sabres, clinched a playoff spot.

When the league released its playoff schedule a few days later, the Lindners knew they had a date in Buffalo at 7:30 p.m. April 20 for Game 4 of the Eastern Conference Quarterfinal series between the Sabres and Philadelphia Flyers.

Easy enough.

But American planes often do not run like the German trains they're used to.

The Lindners' 4:30 p.m. flight Wednesday from Newark to Buffalo was delayed 70 minutes when their plane was stuck in Burlington, Vt., due to weather. Then, another 80. And, still another half-hour. By then, it was 7:40 p.m.

So while Philadelphia's Blair Betts was battling Buffalo's Tim Connolly for the opening faceoff, the Lindners were on a runway in Newark.

By the time their flight touched down in Buffalo, the third period was already under way.

"We threw money -- 10s, 20s -- at the taxi driver saying 'Take us to the hockey game, we need to go now,' " said Thomas Lindner, who was seeing Vanek in-person for the first time.

There were minutes to go when they arrived at HSBC Arena and Thomas Lindner snapped a photograph of the Jumbotron when they got to their seats. It read: 30.8 seconds, giving a whole new meaning to the idea of a last-minute trip.

"We were running in here [when the taxi dropped us off]. We were like 'Where is [section] 103?' " Lindner said. "We only came for the hockey game and we missed the game."

But even 30 seconds of playoff hockey was enough of a thrill for the Lindners to readjust their schedule in an effort to attend Game Six on Sunday.

"I was so overwhelmed by the atmosphere," said Thomas Lindner, already decked out in his new Thomas Vanek jersey that he bought after the game at the Sabres store. "We were looking out for Number 26."

The Lindners built a two-week trip around Game 4 that also saw them tour the White House earlier Wednesday -- they were on time for that -- and has them visiting Toronto and New York City after a stint here.

The Lindners were guests of Buffalo residents David Straitiff and Pam Timby, who met Thomas Lindner during a trip to Berlin last fall. They met at a Berlin Hyatt hotel where Lindner works and struck up a friendship after "Buffalo" came up in conversation.

"I was actually hoping for -- and, it's so hard to say -- overtime as long as [the Sabres] were the last to score," admitted Straitiff, who kept in contact with the Lindners' progress -- or, lack thereof -- to Buffalo before and during Wednesday's game.

After the game, the friends wandered the empty concourse of the arena in search of Thomas Vanek's wall mural for several photographs.

Vanek, a first-round draft pick by the Sabres, is a reliable 30-goal scorer to local Sabres fans but beloved by Austrians. When the Sabres took Vanek fifth overall in 2003 out of the University of Minnesota, he became the highest-drafted Austrian in NHL history.

"He's a hero in Austria," said Alois Lindner, an avid hockey fan who lives near Salzburg, where Vanek grew up. "Austrian ice hockey fans are so proud he has become such a good player."

Vanek's exploits in Buffalo have gotten plenty of attention back home. While playing collegiate hockey for the University of Minnesota, Vanek earned MVP honors at the Frozen Four tournament held in the Queen City in 2003, leading the Golden Gophers to the national title.

He netted his 200th goal earlier this month in a regular season game in Washington and scored two goals in Game 2 in the current series against the Flyers.

One thing could top all of this, according to the Lindners: Thomas Vanek hoisting the Stanley Cup in Austria.

e-mail: tpignataro@buffnews.com