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Vanek's fast start leads Sabres

by John Kreiser
Buffalo's Thomas Vanek, the NHL leader in goals with 22 entering the weekend, is as close to a one-man wrecking crew as the League has this season.

Vanek's 22 goals represent 28.9 percent of the Sabres' non-shootout total of 76. No other player is even close to contributing that percentage of his team's offense. Ottawa's Dany Heatley (22.6 percent) is second; Philadelphia's Jeff Carter, second to Vanek in the goal-scoring race, has scored 21.5 percent of his team's goals (20 of 93).

Vanek was the first player to reach 20 goals this season, the first time a Sabre has won that race since 1975-76, when Danny Gare got 20 in 26 games — one fewer game than Vanek. He's also scored 47 goals in calendar year 2008 (25 in 45 games after Jan. 1, and 22 so far in 2008-09), second to Washington's Alex Ovechkin, who had his 50th of the year on Wednesday night in the Caps' 3-1 win over Boston.

This season's performance has been a complete turnaround from 2007-08 for Vanek, who didn't even get his 10th goal last season until the Sabres' 31st game and didn't hit 20 until Game 56. Even in his career-best 43-goal season in 2006-07, Vanek didn't reach the 20-goal mark until Buffalo's 37th game.

Nine on the Isle — What do Philadelphia goaltender Martin Biron and Hall of Famer Ken Dryden have in common? Each owns a nine-game winning streak over the New York Islanders, the longest by any goaltender since the Isles entered the NHL in 1972. Biron matched Dryden's feat, accomplished from 1975-77, with a 4-3 victory at the Wachovia Center on Tuesday night.

However, Biron's mastery of the Islanders can't match backup goaltender Antero Niittymaki's complete dominance of the Atlanta Thrashers. Niittymaki has won all 11 career decisions against the Thrashers, four of them by shutout.

Miller time — What Biron does to the Islanders and Niittymaki to the Thrashers, Buffalo's Ryan Miller largely does against the entire Southeast Division.

Miller beat Tampa Bay twice in the past week, winning 4-3 on the road on Dec. 6 and 4-2 at home on Dec. 10. He's now 13-2-0 against the Bolts. But he's enjoyed similar success against the rest of the Southeast, posting a career mark of 38-12-5 against the division's five teams. He's 8-2-0 against Washington, 6-2-2 against Carolina, 6-2-3 against Atlanta and 5-4-0 against Florida.

Home sweet home — The HP Pavilion is becoming the toughest place to visit in the NHL. San Jose improved to 15-0-2 at the Shark Tank on Thursday with a 2-0 victory over Anaheim. The Sharks are the first team since the 1988-89 Calgary Flames to get at least one point in their first 17 home games. Maybe that's a good omen for the Sharks; those Flames, who opened 14-0 with three ties at the Pengrowth Saddledome, finished 32-4-4 at home in the regular season and went on to win the Stanley Cup.  Overall, the Sharks are 23-0-3 in their last 26 games at home.

With 48 points, the Sharks (23-3-2) also are tied with the 1929-30 Boston Bruins for the most points after 28 games.

Don't leave early — Flyers fans would be advised not to leave home games until the final buzzer. They might miss something.

The Flyers have played 15 times at the Wachovia Center, and 14 of those games were decided by one goal. The other, a 5-3 loss to Montreal on Oct. 13, was a two-goal affair only because the Canadiens hit the empty net in the final minute.

That total includes Thursday night's 6-5 shootout victory over Carolina — a game in which the Flyers trailed 5-1 after two periods. Philadelphia became the first team this season to win a game after trailing by more than three goals, and the comeback was the Flyers biggest in more than 20 years.

Can't hang on — The Islanders would be a lot closer to playoff contention if they could only hang on to the leads they're building. They grabbed a 2-0 advantage against the Flyers on Tuesday but wound up losing 4-3. That marked the fourth time this season they have led a game by more than one goal only to lose in regulation — by far the most of any team in the NHL; only Pittsburgh (2) has lost more than one such game.

The Islanders also have a shootout loss in a game they led by two goals — as well as an overtime win in a game in which they blew a 3-0 lead in the third period. That's nine points they didn't get — and it's the difference between being tied for the last playoff berth in the Eastern Conference or tied for last in the conference and the overall standings.

Tampa turnabout — One reason the Tampa Bay Lightning are again tied for last in the overall standings — they matched Los Angeles for last with 71 points in 2007-08 and are even with the Islanders and Atlanta Thrashers this season with 22 points — is a terrible turnaround in their ability to get the extra point in games that are tied after regulation.

For the second consecutive season, the Bolts haven't been able to close the deal after regulation. They were 27-11 combined in 2005-06 and 2006-07 in games tied after regulation — including 16-6 in shootouts. But that success deserted them last season and hasn't returned. Since the start of 2007-08, the Lightning are just 6-17 in games that are tied after 60 minutes, including 3-6 in shootouts. This season's problems have been especially acute: The Lightning are 2-8 when tied after regulation and 1-5 in shootouts — meaning that a lot of extra points that have gone sailing away.

No pitchers' duels — With the season past the one-third mark, the Toronto Maple Leafs are the only team that hasn't won a game in which they scored no more than two goals. They were left by themselves when the Washington Capitals won 2-1 on Saturday at the Air Canada Centre for their first win in eight games when failing to score at least three times. The Leafs are now 0-8-3 when scoring two or fewer goals.

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