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Vanek falls with Sabres; Slump, bad penalties reflect drop to 15th

He's not alone, but Thomas Vanek certainly didn't see this coming.

"How can you?" he said Saturday after the Sabres concluded practice as the last-place team in the Eastern Conference. "You look at this team, and it's a good team. We played like it at the start of the year and slowly fell apart."

The slide toward oblivion has sped up for Buffalo, which hosts Pittsburgh in a rare 12:30 matinee today. The Sabres are winless in their last four games and have fallen to 15th in the East.

Vanek, meanwhile, has fallen off his scorching offensive pace. The Sabres' perennial goal-scoring leader has just two goals and four points in his last 15 games.

"A lot of it is obviously confidence," he said in First Niagara Center. "I'm just trying to focus on playing the game hard, get pucks deep and keep grinding it out. I'm sure [confidence is down], especially when you're not winning. Like I said, you try and just work hard, get to the net, get rebounds and tips, and try to find your game again."

Since missing four games with an upper-body injury in mid-January, Vanek has been trying to find his game on nearly every line. He started at right wing alongside center Tyler Ennis and left wing Matt Ellis during Friday's shootout loss to Montreal. He was the right winger for Ennis and Nathan Gerbe on Thursday in Philadelphia.

Most of Vanek's success this season came at left wing with captain Jason Pominville. The duo was back together Saturday, flanking center Derek Roy.

"It's been a little while," Pominville said, "but hopefully it will come back and click and go in the right direction because there'd be no better time than now to get it going."

Coach Lindy Ruff put the trio together during the closing stages of the loss to the Canadiens.

"It comes down to a commitment for each guy," Ruff said. "I don't care who you play together. They all know what position they are, and it's a commitment to playing in their own end."

The reunion came two periods after Vanek got benched. The left winger took a cross-checking penalty midway through the first. He didn't play again until the second.

"Penalties are something we don't want to take," Vanek said. "Obviously, it was a bad one. I feel like the guy went down pretty easily, but that doesn't matter. They called it. It's on me.

"You can't get frustrated about stuff like that," he said of the benching. "Obviously, you're not happy about that, but you can't show it. You take it. You're upbeat, you cheer your teammates on and you hope to get another chance. When you do get it, play hard."

Vanek leads the Sabres with 23 minor penalties. It's been a topic of discussion, Ruff said, which is why repercussions have become necessary. Gerbe sat for half of the second period Friday after a hooking call.

"We've ramped up a little more structure for that off ice for undisciplined penalties, so we're going to deal with that internally," Ruff said. "There's going to be ramifications for those type of situations."

Ruff is hesitant to say Vanek learned the lesson.

"I don't know," the coach said. "You can only tell over time. I've had meetings. The message wasn't received the previous meetings. I thought after the St. Louis game [Jan. 21] it's been cleaned up for a period of time, but to take that penalty [Friday] night again, it's a selfish penalty and a total lack of discipline."

Vanek, despite the slump, remains second on the Sabres with 21 goals, one behind Pominville. Of course, that's like being the First Mate on the Titanic. The third-place guy is Roy, who has just 11.

With only 24 games to play, the Sabres will need Vanek's offense to return if they want to avoid the indignity of finishing last.

"Guys still believe," Vanek said. "They really do. We know it's going to be a tough task, but again, you've got to take it game by game and chip away."