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Vanek leads Sabres past Maple Leafs

by John Kreiser
A few thoughts as the Tampa Bay Lightning try to figure out what hit them:

The Natural -- Thomas Vanek has a knack for natural hat tricks -- even on a night when he and his teammates were tired.

Vanek scored the last three goals in Buffalo's 5-0 victory against Toronto on Wednesday, giving him five career hat tricks -- the last four of them naturals. That matches an NHL record set by Cy Denneny between 1923 and 1924 with the old Ottawa Senators.

Vanek had three natural hat tricks in the last six weeks of the 2007-08 season before putting three pucks past Toronto rookie Justin Pogge in the Sabres' first home game in nearly three weeks. They dominated Toronto despite being fatigued after spending most of Tuesday flying home after a trip-ending 3-2 loss at Anaheim on Monday.

"We knew we were maybe physically not in top shape, but I thought we skated well," said Vanek, who increased his team-leading total to 32 goals. "We played smart and got the early lead, and that really helped us."

The outburst also was a relief to Vanek, who had scored just twice in the last 11 games.

"You're going to have a stretch like that over an 82-game season," he said.

Malkin gets mad -- Evgeni Malkin turned boos to cheers and a loss into a win.

Malkin roused the sleeping Pittsburgh Penguins from a 3-0 third-period deficit and capped the night by scoring with 15.5 seconds remaining in overtime to give the Pens an unlikely 4-3 victory against the Tampa Bay Lightning.

For two periods, the Lightning had their way with the listless Penguins and appeared to be on their way to the ninth win in their last 10 visits to Mellon Arena

But Malkin began the comeback by scoring 2:25 into the third period -- not long after being checked into the corner by former teammate Mark Recchi. Malkin later set up Petr Sykora's game-tying power-play goal with 3:29 remaining in regulation after Sykora assisted on Mark Eaton's goal.

"I'm mad because we're losing," Malkin said after being asked what got him going.


Said coach Michel Therrien: "You could see the fire was in his eyes. He was ready to do everything he could in his power to try to win this hockey game. He was a true leader tonight on the ice."

Malkin's wrist shot through rookie goaltender Mike McKenna's legs capped the comeback and gave the Penguins two points they absolutely had to have against the struggling Lightning.

"You always look back at seasons and turning points, and hopefully this is one for us," captain Sidney Crosby said. "It was a big character builder for everyone."

A team effort -- Few things in the NHL this season have been as difficult as putting a puck into the Boston Bruins' net. Boston's solid defense and goaltending have made them the League's best defensive team.

The B's gave Philadelphia a dose of defense Wednesday, shutting down the Flyers, 3-1, before a full (and disappointed) house at the Wachovia Center.

"As a team lately, we've come together and we've been playing quite well as a group defensively," said defenseman Dennis Wideman, who assisted on Michael Ryder's second-period goal and followed David Krejci's go-ahead tally at 5:48 of the third period by scoring 35 seconds later.

Boston leads the NHL with only 109 goals allowed. Tim Thomas limited the Flyers to just one -- a second-period goal by Scott Hartnell. He stopped all 14 shots he faced in the first period, including a spectacular diving stick save on Jeff Carter.

"Timmy was great in the net, and our D and forwards are doing a great job getting back and keeping teams to the outside," Wideman said. "That's something that we stress a lot. If a team is going to take a shot, make sure that they are taking it from the outside. I think we did a pretty good job at that and we limited their quality scoring chances."

They'll take it -- The Detroit Red Wings aren't playing like the team that won the Stanley Cup last spring, so an unlikely 5-4 win against the Phoenix Coyotes was more than welcome.

Nicklas Lidstrom's power-play goal with 39 seconds left gave the Wings their second win in a row after five straight losses in a game that saw Detroit keep getting and blowing leads.

"It's not the way we want to win but we're still able to win games," Lidstrom said. "We're still working at details in our game that could be better."

Lidstrom's shot from the point went in off Coyotes defenseman Ken Klee's stick. But the future Hall of Famer wasn't about to throw it back.

"It hit something," Lidstrom said. "We'll take the win tonight."

The Coyotes lost for the fifth consecutive time since play resumed after the All-Star break. This one really hurt -- they battled back from a 4-2 deficit in the third period only to have Lidstrom's shot beat Ilya Bryzgalov just seven seconds after the Coyotes' Joel Perrault was called for hooking.

"It was tough," Coyotes captain Shane Doan. "It's disappointing; (we've) got to find a way to win."

The call against Perrault didn't sit well with the frustrated Coyotes.

"It was a penalty, I wasn't debating that," Phoenix coach Wayne Gretzky said. "But there were three hooks on our guys before that."

Two for me, none for you -- In the wild, wild West, getting points is important. So is making sure your opponent doesn't get any. The Minnesota Wild accomplished both.

The Wild's 3-0 victory against Anaheim gave Minnesota two important points. Just as important, the Ducks left with nothing. Anaheim is fifth with 57 points, while Minnesota moved into a sixth-place tie with Dallas with 55 points. But four other teams have 53 points or more, setting up a wild final two months for those precious last postseason berths.

"We can't be satisfied, because the standings probably will be completely different tomorrow night," said goaltender Niklas Backstrom, who was flawless in making 34 saves.

The Ducks knew the two points they didn't get likely will be missed later in the season.

"It's only going to get tighter, and these two points were too important for us to pass up," coach Randy Carlyle said. "It's just disturbing from the standpoint of how little we were into the game."

Material from wire services and team online and broadcast media was used in this report

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