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Red-hot Vanek carrying Sabres

by John Kreiser

"Mike and I witnessed Vanek’s continued dominance live..."


"I’m still pleased. The Sabres are a complete team..."


"Here are some of my thoughs on the Sabres thus far...."

Thomas Vanek ended last season on a hot streak, scoring 16 goals in Buffalo's last 25 games. He's carried that success into the new season -- and is carrying the Sabres with him.

The Sabres have played just 5 games, but Vanek already has 7 goals -- a total it took him until Dec. 1 to reach last season. He's scored at least once in every game, with a pair of two-goal performances back-to-back Oct. 13 and 15.

Coach Lindy Ruff has expanded Vanek's responsibilities this season to include penalty-killing, and Vanek has thrived with the extra work. He already has scored the first two shorthanded goals of his career.

Vanek had 43 goals in 2006-07 and 36 last season; he's on pace to far surpass those marks and is well on the way to what could be his first 50-goal season.
Five up -- Five players off to a good start:

Antti Miettinen -- Few people paid much attention when Minnesota signed Miettinen as a free agent this summer following a 15-goal season with Dallas. Maybe they should have. Miettinen had 5 goals in the Wild's first 3 games, and then scored the shootout winner Friday in a 1-0 victory.

Alexander Semin -- Washington's other Alexander is doing just fine. Semin had 5 goals and an assist in 3 games last week and shares the League lead with 10 points -- a big change from his start last season, when he struggled with an ankle injury and took weeks to get untracked.

Evgeni Malkin -- Semin is tied for the top spot with Malkin, who comes into this week off a 4-assist game against Toronto on Saturday. He has 6 assists and 7 points in Pittsburgh's last 2 games.

Ryan Miller -- Miller wore down in the final weeks of last season, but he's showing no after-effects in the early going in 2008-09, allowing only 4 goals while winning his first 3 decisions.

Keith Tkachuk -- The 500-goal scorer is off to a fast start in pursuit of his next milestone. Tkachuk has 6 goals in St. Louis' first 5 games and has scored at least once in each game. Four of the goals have come on power plays, an area where the Blues are much improved after finishing last in the League in 2007-08.

Five down -- Five players who aren't:

Peter Budaj -- The Avs took a risk by letting Jose Theodore walk after he got them to the second round of the playoffs last spring. They expected Budaj to step into the No. 1 job, but so far it hasn't happened -- he's 0-3, and has allowed 13 goals in those 3 games.

Chris Kunitz -- Lots of Ducks are off to poor starts, but Kunitz, a two-time 20-goal scorer, has struggled especially. He has no points in the Ducks' first 7 games while going minus-8, including minus-2 in Sunday's 3-1 loss to Carolina.

Radim Vrbata -- The Lightning signed Vrbata as a free agent after he scored a career-best 27 goals for Phoenix last season. So far, no good. Vrbata went scoreless in Tampa Bay's first 4 games and was a healthy scratch Saturday against Minnesota.

Chris Drury -- The Rangers are off to a 6-1-1 start, but their new captain hasn't been much help offensively. Drury has just 1 assist in 8 games, has no points in his last 5 games and is minus-4 for the season.

Miikka Kiprusoff --  Calgary's No. 1 goaltender has had a tough start. He's 1-3-1 in the Flames' first 5 games and has allowed 22 goals -- at least 3 in all 5 games. The Flames can't win with a starting goalie carrying a 4.37 goals-against average and an .851 save percentage.

Injuries, news and notes -- It didn't even take 2 weeks for the first coaching change of the season to take place, with Joel Quenneville replacing Denis Savard in Chicago. The Blackhawks lost Quenneville's debut in a shootout, but won Sunday in his first home game.

Out -- Henrik Zetterberg already has missed 2 games and is expected to be out of Detroit's lineup this week as he tries to overcome a groin injury. The Wings likely will be careful with their star forward to make sure the problem doesn't linger. Defenseman Brad Stuart also sat out Saturday night after taking a puck in the left knee Thursday. ... St. Louis goaltender Chris Mason will be out for at least another week after undergoing an emergency appendectomy Oct. 16. ... Minnesota sniper Marian Gaborik, who has a history of groin problems, has missed the Wild's last 2 games with a lower-body injury. Another Wild forward, Owen Nolan, has been sidelined with a leg injury but may be able to play this week. ... Nashville captain Jason Arnott went down with a broken finger on his right hand Oct. 13. He's already missed 3 games but may try to put a splint on the finger and play before it's fully healed. ... Washington forward Viktor Kozlov injured his left leg last week and could miss another 10 days or so. ... Carolina forward Tuomo Ruutu sat out the Hurricanes' games in Los Angeles and Anaheim with a groin problem. ... Montreal forward Andrei Kostitsyn left Saturday's game after being by Phoenix's Kurt Sauer on Saturday. He didn't return and may sit out Monday's game against Florida. ... New Jersey lost center Brian Rolston with a high ankle sprain Thursday. They're not offering a timetable for his return, but if the past (including Sidney Crosby last season) is any indication, he could miss several weeks. ... San Jose forward Milan Michalek sat out two weekend games with an upper-body injury.

Returning -- Islanders goaltender Rick DiPietro played his first game Saturday, allowing 2 goals on 36 shots. He's coming back from off-season hip and knee surgery. ... Ottawa captain Daniel Alfredsson returned Friday night, meaning he missed only 1 game after minor knee surgery. ... Columbus hopes to get center Manny Malholtra back this week. He's been sidelined with a lower-body injury sustained during the preseason. The Jackets also may get defenseman Christian Backman back after he sat out Saturday's game with a lower-body injury, and hope starting goalie Pascal Leclaire will be ready Tuesday after he had to skip Saturday's game with a hand injury. ... Florida defenseman Karlis Skrastins made his season debut Oct. 16 and scored a goal. He'd been idle with a neck injury sustained during training camp. ... Tampa Bay defenseman Paul Ranger played his first game Oct. 16. He had been out since undergoing surgery on his right shoulder in April. ... Dallas forward Steve Ott returned Saturday after missing 2 games with an undisclosed injury. ... Vancouver defenseman Kevin Bieksa returned Sunday night after missing a week with a knee injury.

Still out -- Buffalo center Tim Connolly, sidelined with a fractured vertebra, already is past the 1 week he was expected to miss. Another Buffalo center, Paul Gaustad, is skating again but still is working his way back from a broken thumb. ... Dallas forward Jere Lehtinen is skating but has yet to play a game this season. He's been out with a groin injury. ... Florida defenseman Bryan Allen isn't sure when he'll play again. He had offseason surgery on his left knee, played the Panthers' first 2 games, but hasn't dressed since.

The week ahead -- It's a comparatively light week, with only three teams (Boston, Dallas and Florida) playing 4 games and 9 clubs scheduled to play just twice.

Games to watch:

Dallas at New York Rangers (Oct. 20) -- Sean Avery, who signed with Dallas as a free agent this summer, returns to Madison Square for the first time as the Stars begin a three-game swing through the New York area.

Pittsburgh at Boston (Oct. 20) -- Sidney Crosby comes to town as the Bruins become the last of the NHL's 30 teams to play their home opener after starting the season with a four-game road trip.

San Jose at Philadelphia (Oct. 22) -- In an odd occurrence, two teams that couldn't be much further apart geographically play the back end of a home-and-home series. They met Saturday night in San Jose.

Atlanta at Detroit (Oct. 24) -- Marian Hossa, who was traded by Atlanta to Pittsburgh at the trade deadline and then signed with the Red Wings this summer, plays against the Thrashers for the first time since the deal.

Ottawa at Toronto (Oct. 25; CBC, NHLN-U.S.) -- Round 1 in this season's edition of the Battle of Ontario is one of 15 games on the schedule -- only the second time the NHL has had every team playing on the same night since the League went to 30 teams. The good news: Everyone gets the next day off.

Tough week ahead:

Dallas Stars -- The Stars visit the three New York-area teams in a four-day stretch and then fly home after Thursday's game and host Washington on Saturday.

Florida Panthers -- Florida gets 4 games in 6 nights in 4 cities, with visits to Montreal and Ottawa, a home game against San Jose on Friday and a trip to St. Louis the next night.

Edmonton Oilers -- The Oilers play only 3 games, but they're all on the road, in a four-day span beginning Wednesday in Chicago and followed by games in Denver on Thursday and Vancouver on Saturday.

Easy week ahead:

New York Islanders -- The Isles have 4 days off before hosting Dallas on Thursday in the Stars' third game in four nights. Carolina comes to town 2 days later.

Phoenix Coyotes -- Like the Islanders, the Coyotes take a breather, with four days off before they host Washington on Thursday and Calgary on Saturday.   

Montreal Canadiens --
The Canadiens host Florida on Monday, then get some time off before Anaheim comes to town on Saturday night.
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