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Vanek sheds stress of contract and expectations

NHL.com @NHL

Thomas Vanek is a year removed from the big contract signing, a year apart from the transformation of the Buffalo Sabres, and a year away from pressure and expectations that were tough to meet all at once.

Not that Vanek isn't being counted on to carry the Sabres' offense without former co-captains Chris Drury and Danny Briere, it's just that now he has found a comfort zone in the most important of roles.

"No one talked to me," said the 24-year-old Vanek, who scored his NHL-leading eighth goal on Thursday in just his seventh game. "I put the same pressure on myself this year that I did last year. And this year it's working out. I think it's just my personality. I don't think anyone's going to tell me to settle down or something.

"I have high expectations of myself. I think until I lose those expectations, if I don't have them anymore, I think I'm taking a step back."

After Drury and Briere left via free agency in the summer of 2007, Vanek also had a chance to bolt Buffalo when Edmonton signed the restricted free agent to a huge seven year, $50 million offer sheet.

The Sabres wasted little time in matching the deal to keep the high-scoring forward and make him the offensive centerpiece.

Vanek got the offer following his second NHL season, when he put up career highs of 43 goals and 41 assists in helping the Sabres reach the Eastern Conference finals for a second straight year. But under the weight of the contract, Vanek dipped to 36 goals and 28 assists last season when Buffalo failed to make the playoffs.

"The people that know me know it's never been about money," the Austrian native said. "I left at an early age from back home to chase my dream of playing in the NHL and win a Stanley Cup. The money's not going to change the work I put in the offseason and everything else. I put a tremendous amount of pressure on myself.

"Obviously the media and stuff, it's what they need to write. When it's not going well, that's an easy thing to point at. But I never would say that was it, that's why I started slow, because of the contract. I would never excuse myself for that."

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SILENT SEAN: Never at a loss for words off the ice, Sean Avery stayed relatively quiet off it during his return trip to the New York area after leaving the Rangers as a free agent during the summer.

Now a member of the Dallas Stars, Avery has brought his agitating ways back to the Western Conference, where he honed his yapping skills during his time with the Detroit Red Wings and the Los Angeles Kings.

Despite a throng of reporters and television cameras that staked out his stall at the pregame skate and after the games, Avery had very little to say to the New York media. He was polite in telling the group that he just didn't want to talk.

Outside of a select few 1-on-1 interviews he held away from the rink, Avery was only heard from during a postgame interview following the Stars' 2-1 win over the Rangers on Monday night.

It was then that he called former teammate Steve Valiquette, New York's backup goalie who has been critical of Avery, a "minor leaguer."

But his relative silence otherwise left Avery-mania to the rest of his Stars teammates, who dealt with the barrage of questions of what it's like to have the NHL's No. 1 pest in the dressing room.

"I hated him. I'm not going to lie," Stars captain Brenden Morrow said. "But I don't have to do that anymore. Now he's on my team. He's tough to play against. He gets under your skin and he's good at what he does.

"What people like and don't like about Sean, he really doesn't care. He comes in and is just going to be himself. Everything he does on the ice, our team needs. As long as his effort stays what it's been the last few years, there won't be any complaints from our guys."

Avery did chitchat a bit while changing his clothes after the game-day skate Monday morning before the Stars played the Rangers. The topic turned to football, and Avery - an Ontario native - was asked for his thoughts regarding the struggling Dallas Cowboys and embattled coach Wade Phillips.

"Who?" Avery asked with a genuine look of confusion on his face. "Oh, is he their coach? Are they not doing well or something?"

When told that not knowing the state of America's Team could get him run out of Dallas in a hurry, the quick-witted Avery had the perfect response.

"Well, I'll probably do that on my own," he said as he walked away.

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SUPER SATURDAY: For just the second time in NHL history, the league scheduled all 30 teams for action Saturday.

Matched only by opening night 2005 when the NHL came back from the season-long lockout, there were 15 games on the slate Saturday on an already busy sports weekend. With college football in full swing and the World Series gearing up for Game 3, the NHL took on more popular events.

However, the league built in a rest day as all 30 teams were given Sunday off - the first time there were no hockey games on a day in the regular season since Nov. 21, 2001. That excludes breaks in the schedule for Christmas, the All-Star game and the Olympics.

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SUPER SID: Canadian native Sidney Crosby will never become president of the United States, but he does have something in common with presidential hopefuls Barack Obama and John McCain.

For the second straight year, Crosby - the Pittsburgh Penguins captain - was chosen as one of the "Top 49 Most Influential Men" by readers of the AskMen.com Web site. Crosby came in at No. 45 after voters chose which men they felt had the greatest influence on the way other men behave, buy and think during 2008.

Obama, the Democratic presidential nominee, topped the list that included No. 10 McCain - his Republican opponent in next month's election - Olympic swimmer Michael Phelps (No. 3), and soccer star David Beckham (No. 25). Beckham finished first a year ago.

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