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Vanek Fuels Home Finale Win

by Staff Writer / Buffalo Sabres

April 5, 2007
By Brian Wheeler

The return of speedy winger Maxim Afinogenov was overshadowed by one of his linemates.

While Afinogenov received a rousing ovation from the crowd each time he touched the puck, it was a pair of goals by Thomas Vanek, including the game winner, that brought the sellout crowd in HSBC Arena to it's feet in Buffalo regular season home finale.

Vanek's second goal of the night - a nifty breakaway score while shorthanded - proved to be the difference maker in Buffalo's 4-2 victory over Northeast Division rival, the Boston Bruins.

Audio: Lindy Ruff | Maxim Afinogenov | Ryan Miller | Thomas Vanek
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"Our whole line is clicking, even with Max in there again and then [Drew] Stafford throughout the game," said Vanek. "I'm just capitalizing on my chances right now."

After Derek Roy moved the puck along the boards, Vanek faked a shot and slipped a backhander five-hole on Bruins goaltender Hannu Toivonen to light the lamp for a second time on the night and 42nd time during the season at 4:26 of the third to make the score 3-2.

He then unselfishly passed up a prime scoring opportunity and possibly his first career NHL hat trick to hand Roy a wide-open net and the center's 19th goal of the season with five minutes remaining in the game

"The puck was rolling on me, so by the time I settled it down, the goalie was right there," said Vanek. "I didn't think I had a good position to actually score myself and I figured Derek looked pretty wide open. It just worked out."

The Sabres sophomore sensation has been on a fearsome tear in the past 11 games, matching eight goals with nine assists for 17 points during that span. He became the first Sabre since Miroslav Satan in 1998-99 to score 40 goals in a season on Tuesday.

"As long as he doesn't peak too soon," joked head coach Lindy Ruff when talking about Vanek's recent play. "Those goals that he scores, he's quick off that goal line. He could have had his third [tonight] but showed a lot of character by passing that off to his linemate and letting him score it.

"He's scored timely goals for us, and he's scored big goals. If he maintains this pace of play, we'll be fine in the playoffs."

The man who returned from a leave of absence had a good showing as well. Afinogenov finished the game with 14:27 in ice time, four shots on net, and a minus-one rating as Boston scored on his very first shift. He missed the last 21 games with a broken wrist.

"Max played well," said Ruff. "He created some good opportunities for us and had several good opportunities for himself. It was good to get him back."

Goaltender Ryan Miller set a new franchise record with his 39th victory of the season, surpassing Don Edwards after stopping 29-of-33 shots.

"[The record for wins] will mean more once the season's over and I get 16 more in the playoffs," said Miller. "That's really what it comes down to. It's been a great season and I've had a lot of fun, but our focus is starting to turn a bit."

Buffalo rallied from a two-goal deficit with four unanswered goals, marking a franchise-record and league-leading 10th time the team has come back to win after trailing by a pair.

"We played sloppy the first 20 [minutes] and playoff hockey the last 40," said Vanek. "We haven't panicked all year. You look at our offensive firepower and you're not allowed to panic."

"That last 40 minutes, we were that same team," said Ruff comparing his team's performance to their dominating effort on Tuesday night. "We really locked it down. We kept the shots down and the chances down. We played a pretty determined game after that."

Andrew Ference gave Boston the 1-0 lead with his first goal as a member of the Bruins.

Skating four a side, Ference chipped Phil Kessel's rebound over Miller at 4:01. Ference skated for Calgary until he was shipped to Boston along with Chuck Kobasew in exchange for Brad Stuart and Wayne Primeau following the Sabres 3-2 shootout victory over the Flames on Feb. 10. His last goal came on Nov. 14.

Patrice Bergeron's heavy one-timer from the left wing gave the referee's something to look at and Boston a two-goal lead. Bergeron's 22nd of the season ricocheted out of the net, prompting a video review at 14:04.

Wrestling through the slot with Aaron Ward, Ales Kotalik kicked Dainius Zubrus' centering pass to his stick and snapped a wristshot just inside the left post to score his 16th goal of the season and second since returning on Mar. 28 from knee injury that took him out of the lineup for 16 games.

The tally came just 21 seconds after Bergeron made the score 2-0.

"That was a good wake-up call," said Vanek regarding Kotalik's goal. "To go down 2-0, and then come back right away to make it 2-1, I think that is a critical goal."

Vanek collected Drew Stafford's rebound behind the net and stuffed the puck past a confused Toivonen to record his 41st goal of the season and tie the game 2-2 at 18:38.
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