Roughly 72 hours after basically saying his team would be in the Stanley Cup Playoffs, Thomas Vanek
put the Buffalo Sabres
on his back and carried them to a dramatic victory.
Vanek capped a natural hat trick in less than five minutes by scoring 2:25 into overtime as Buffalo erased a 3-1 deficit with less than three minutes left in regulation to beat the Tampa Bay Lightning 4-3 at the HSBC Arena on Wednesday night.
“He had a big night,” Sabres forward Jason Pominville said of Vanek. “It was fun to see him go. He could have had a couple more early on. He still managed to get three, and that's what counts.”
Following back-to-back losses to the New York Rangers and Pittsburgh Penguins over the weekend, during which time they were outscored 9-2, Vanek all but guaranteed the Sabres would make the Playoffs. With Wednesday’s win, Buffalo improved to 9-2-2 in its last 13 games and moved into a three-way tie for the No. 7 seed in the Eastern Conference with the Boston Bruins and Philadelphia Flyers.
“It feels great,” said Vanek, who has scored 12 goals in his last 11 games after a slow start. “It’s finally coming, and hopefully I can stay on my game from here on out.”
Tampa Bay’s Chris Gratton opened the scoring 4:02 into the game when he one-timed a cross-ice feed from Filip Kuba past goalie Ryan Miller to give the Lightning a 1-0 lead.
The score remained that way through the end of the second period, thanks to some brilliant play by Tampa Bay goalie Johan Holmqvist. The Lightning were outshot 27-15 through the first 40 minutes, but Holmqvist kept the Sabres off the scoreboard.
Holmqvist’s heroics were what made the third period so tough to watch for Lightning coach John Tortorella, whose team remains in the Eastern Conference basement.
"We didn't play for the guy," Tortorella said. "He kept us in there, gave us a chance, and we got squat from main people. It's inexcusable. And that's why we sit where we sit."
Brad Richards made it 2-0 at 1:03 of the third, but Buffalo scored two minutes later when Derek Roy ripped a shot from the slot past Holmqvist for his 22nd goal of the season.
Things looked bleak for the Sabres when Vaclav Prospal restored Tampa Bay’s two-goal lead at 13:12. After Dan Boyle’s shot died before it could get to Miller, Prospal collected the loose puck and fired it home to make it 3-1.
Then Vanek took over. The gifted forward scored his first goal of the night with 2:21 remaining in regulation when he redirected Toni Lydman’s slap shot from the point past Holmqvist to cut the deficit in half. He tied the game 36 seconds later on a gorgeous cross-ice feed from Tim Connolly that he poked past Holmqvist.
“We need him to play the way he’s playing,” Sabres coach Lindy Ruff said. “We need him to score. We need him to be the guy who can make a difference in games. We’re thin as it is. I thought Thomas did a great job for us. He’s getting rewarded. He went through a tough stretch. He’s getting some pucks to go now, and it’s great to see.”
Almost as great to see as it was when Ruff watched Vanek seal the improbable, come-from-behind victory in overtime. After Boyle was whistled for hooking 1:26 into overtime, Vanek one-timed a pass from Jaroslav Spacek under Holmqvist for the game-winner.
Vanek said he used the Montreal Canadiens’ remarkable 6-5 shootout victory over the New York Rangers on Tuesday night as motivation while his team was trailing by a pair of goals late in the third period. Montreal erased a 5-0 deficit against the Blueshirts.
“I watched the Montreal game last night and how they came back,” he said. “It's the game of hockey and you never give up. We never did. It was a great win for us.”
It was also a great way for Vanek to regain his scoring touch. He had just 13 goals through 50 games this season after scoring 43 times in 2006-07.
“If I would have known, I'd have figured it out two months ago,” Vanek responded when asked what caused his early-season scoring woes. “You just keep working hard. Right now, I have a ton of confidence. Things are going my way, which is nice. Right now things are going well for me. I just hope I can stay on that streak.”
Material from wire services and team online and broadcast media was used in this report.