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by Kevin Snow / Buffalo Sabres
In hockey terms, referring to Thomas Vanek as a “reliable” performer over the past six seasons would be as deadly accurate as his slapshot. Vanek has only missed 21 games due to injury since debuting in the 2005-06 campaign, and has played in 80 or more games four times. Last year he became the only player in Sabres history to lead the team in goals for five consecutive seasons. But the 27-year-old Vanek is off to the best offensive start of his career this season, and the term “consistency” is likely going to become the new buzzword for the Austrian sniper.

Vanek’s 14 points (7+7) are one more than the 13 he started the 2006-07 season with through 10 games, and place him two points behind Toronto’s Phil Kessel for the league scoring lead. With one game left to the 10-game mark, Vanek’s has a chance to match Chris Drury’s 10-game start to the 2006-07 season, and possibly surpass the 16 scored by Maxim Afinogenov to start that same season. Those 10-game totals sit second and third to the franchise record of 29 points (9+20) in 10 games set by Pat LaFontaine to open the 1992-93 season.

“Consistency is the biggest thing, even as a young guy. It’s something I still work on, to be effective every night,” explains Vanek. “Not every night you’re going to feel 100 per cent, so you need to find other ways to contribute to the team.”

Thomas Vanek (Getty Images)
The consistency Vanek has shown this season has carried over from the midway point of last year. Since December 26, Vanek’s 62 points (26+36) in 54 games are tied for fourth in the NHL with Henrik Sedin – trailing only Daniel Sedin (73), Corey Perry (64) and Martin St. Louis (63). In this time he’s only been held pointless in three consecutive games once (Feb. 25-Mar. 3), and has scored at least one point in eight of nine games this season.

Vanek credits much of this success to playing alongside Jason Pominville, who is fourth in the league in scoring with 13 points (4+9) in nine games.

“Ever since Rochester, Jason and I have never really played together. We practiced together a few times, and had some games here and there. But last year after Derek went out, we got put together and ever since then we’ve been clicking.

“That’s what you need. It’s tough in this league to do it on your own. You need a five-man pack, but on a forward line you need at least two guys that can click and I think we have that. We’ve got that chemistry, and Luke (Adam) is doing a good job for us down the middle.”

Adam calls Vanek “the best player he’s ever played with,” and says there more to his game than just goal scoring.

“He’s much more than a goal scorer; he’s probably one of the best playmakers too. Some of those plays he makes around the net -- working hard down low, getting body position. It’s just those little plays that a lot of guys can’t make, and it just seems to be on your tape every time. He’s just as good a passer as he is a shooter.”

Jochen Hecht was the lone Sabre missing from today’s practice, and Lindy Ruff said his timetable for return is still unclear at this point.

"We gave him another day off; he just wasn’t doing that well today,” Ruff explained. “We’re just trying to figure some things out. Not to go into detail, be he could be back into full go tomorrow. He’s seeing some people today, and there’s a good chance he could practice again tomorrow.”

Patrick Kaleta practiced with a full cage mask on his helmet, to protect a cut on his nose that has become infected and caused his facial swelling. Ruff said it was a precautionary measure that shouldn’t affect his playing status.

“We’re hoping with medication that would go down. Obviously it isn’t good looking, but it’s something that happens when you get cut and you’re sweating in it. It’s a surface infection. He’s not the prettiest guy right now, but he can still be effective.”
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