OTTAWA (AP) -With the Buffalo Sabres' defense getting the puck to the net to create offense, Thomas Vanek did what he's paid to do: finish the job.
Vanek scored three times for his first career hat trick, leading Buffalo to a 5-1 victory over the Ottawa Senators on Tuesday night.
Vanek opened the scoring in the second period and added two goals from the goalmouth in the third, including his 20th of the season on a five-on-three with 3:58 remaining for his first three-goal game.
"The defense was doing a great job of getting the puck to the net and it helped me," Vanek said. "I'm always in front. It's been like that for the last four or five games."
Ryan Miller, who made 25 saves, was delighted for Vanek, who signed a seven-year, $50-million deal to remain with the Sabres, who matched Edmonton's offer sheet last summer to the then-restricted free agent.
"It's great. I'm really happy for him," Miller said. "Earlier in the year, he was searching for it and he's had a lot of pressure thrown on his plate. I think as the team has settled down, he's settled down, too, and I think he feels that he can go out there and score some goals now. He's putting that puck on the net like he needs to. I think he was cutting it a little close earlier in the year, and he's doing a great job just getting those pucks there."
Clark MacArthur and Jason Pominville each had a goal and an assist in the third for the Sabres, who climbed back into the Eastern Conference playoff race by earning 16 of a possible 18 points while going undefeated through regulation in nine straight games.
"The difference to me has been smarts," said defenseman Brian Campbell, who assisted on each of Vanek's first two goals. "I think our forecheck has been creating so much and that's as a five-man unit, not just the forwards going in there. We're trying to forecheck as D and have tighter gaps and support the forwards on the offense a lot more."
Buffalo is 7-0-2 since Jan. 21, when a 6-2 loss in Phoenix dropped it to the conference's lower ranks with a 20-21-6 record.
|Dean McAmmond tries to keep Vanek away from the puck in the third period. (AP Photo/The Canadian Press, Sean Kilpatrick)
Sabres coach Lindy Ruff credited the work of Campbell and defense partner Jaroslav Spacek.
"We've gone nine games without losing in regulation and I think you can point to those two guys really as the leaders for us in the fact that the goals against has stayed down and the top lines from the other team have been frustrated," Ruff said. "If we keep playing like that, we're a dangerous team."
Vanek scored the only goal of the first two periods 3:44 into the second with a slap shot past Ray Emery. He made it 2-0 early in the third as he spun around in front of Emery to beat the Ottawa goalie for his 19th goal.
Newcomer Cory Stillman got his first point with the Senators on an assist as Randy Robitaille ruined Miller's shutout bid with a power-play goal 3:57 into the third.
Senators public address announcer Stu Schwartz was still announcing details of Robitaille's goal when MacArthur restored Buffalo's two-goal lead 33 seconds later with his seventh goal at 4:30.
Vanek scored his third goal at 16:02 with Buffalo enjoying a two-man advantage.
Pominville scored the Sabres' fifth goal on the ensuing power play at 16:56.
Ottawa's top line of Daniel Alfredsson, Dany Heatley and Jason Spezza was held without a point after combining for 15 - including Spezza's first hat trick and career high six points - between them in Saturday's 6-1 win over Montreal.
Miller faced only five shots in the first period and six in the second as Buffalo enjoyed a 27-11 margin in shots through the first two periods. The Sabres outshot the Senators 39-26 overall.
"We got outplayed throughout the game," Alfredsson said. "I mean, they got 40 shots on us in our building and you're not going to win too many games when you give up as much as we did."
Ottawa, which leads the conference by three points, had won two in a row with Heatley back in the lineup. The Senators won only three of 11 games between Jan. 13 and Feb. 5 while the All-Star forward was sidelined by a separated shoulder.
Defenseman Mike Commodore made his Ottawa debut, along with Stillman. The veterans were acquired from Carolina on Monday in a trade for right wing Patrick Eaves and defenseman Joe Corvo.
Both newcomers were in the starting lineup, as Commodore was paired with Wade Redden while Stillman played on a line with center Mike Fisher and right wing Chris Neil. Stillman also saw time on the Senators' second power-play unit with Neil and Robitaille.
Commodore helped deny an early scoring chance by Buffalo when he pushed a loose puck in front of the goal line back under Emery's pads 7:24 in after Sabres forward Patrick Kaleta's wraparound shot got behind the Senators goalie.
Notes: In addition to Campbell, Sabres C Tim Connolly and LW Joechen Hecht also each had two assists. ... Stillman, a Stanley Cup champion with Tampa Bay in 2004 and Carolina in 2006, wore his usual No. 61. Commodore, also a member of the Hurricanes' championship team, sported No. 44, which was previously worn by Eaves. The No. 22 Commodore wore with Carolina is already taken by Chris Kelly. ... Ottawa assigned LW Nick Foligno to Binghamton of the AHL before the game.