BOSTON – In the spirit of all the chatter after the morning skate, the Buffalo Sabres spent Thursday night punching and counter punching.
In the end, the biggest blows were delivered by Thomas Vanek.
The NHL’s hottest scorer exploded for his second five-point game of the season and first hat trick as the Sabres wiped out a two-goal deficit and stormed past the Boston Bruins, 7-4, in TD Garden.
With swarms of Boston media still talking up Milan Lucic’s destruction of Ryan Miller here more than 14 months ago, the Sabres had to prove they were up to the task this time on the fight card. Showing some battle on the scoreboard was also required. The judges’ cards were positive on both counts.
Tough guy John Scott KO’d Boston counterpart Shawn Thornton in a one-sided fight in the first three minutes to set a good tone. After a scoreless opening 20 minutes, Buffalo fell into a 3-1 hole following a second-period Bruins barrage. The Sabres tied it by the end of the period, fell behind again early in the third and then won it by scoring the game’s final four goals.
“That was a little bit of old-time firewagon hockey,” cracked coach Lindy Ruff.
The Sabres pulled even at 3-3-1 by snapping their four-game losing streak and handed Boston (5-1-1) its first regulation loss of the season. The Bruins had also been 4-0 at home. The Sabres left immediately after the game for Montreal, where they’re scheduled to practice this morning and meet the Canadiens on Saturday at 2 in the Bell Centre.
Vanek opened the scoring at 1:38 of the second period, one-timing a bullet past Tuukka Rask off a perfect feed from Cody Hodgson on a two-on-one. Jason Pominville did the dirty work at the Buffalo blue line by chipping the puck away from Zdeno Chara.
After the Bruins scored three goals in a span of 5:42 to get the sellout crowd roaring, Vanek silenced them at 16:46 with a perfect deflection of a Christian Ehrhoff pass. It came while the Sabres had a two-man advantage and got Buffalo within 3-2.
After some great work by Marcus Foligno near the Boston blue line, Vanek helped the Sabres pull even at 3-3 at 18:19 by hooking a sensational pass while falling down to Tyler Ennis, who pounded the puck past Rask.
In the third period, Vanek fed Hodgson on a two-on-one for what proved to be the winning goal at 6:54, and toyed with Rask on a breakaway with multiple dekes to put Buffalo up, 6-4, with 1:29 to go.
“Pucks are going in right now for me,” Vanek said. “With Pommer I’ve always had good chemistry and Cody fits right in. There’s going to be stretches where nothing goes. You like it right now but it’s going to hit the other way too.”
Doesn’t seem that way. While playing only six games, Vanek has 15 points (six goals, nine assists) – and that put him in the NHL scoring lead pending San Jose’s game later Thursday against Edmonton. Joe Thornton and Patrick Marleau of the Sharks entered that one with 14 apiece.
Vanek also had five points in the season opener Jan. 20 against Philadelphia. How rare is two five-point games in 12 days? Last season in 82 games, Pittsburgh’s Evgeni Malkin was the only NHL player with more than one five-point game (he had four). In the 2010-11 season, no one had more than one.
Pretty rare indeed.
“This is the best stretch he’s played,” Pominville said. “He’s good on both sides of the puck. He’s skating well. He’s making plays. It’s fun for our line to be able to click the way we have early on and hopefully we can keep it going.”
Pominville and Hodgson both had three-point nights, giving the team’s top line 11 in the game. Pominville capped the win on an empty-netter with 13.6 seconds left.
The key stretch was Buffalo’s five-on-three, which came courtesy of a Lucic boarding penalty and a holding call on Chara before the whistle blew. Vanek was on the ice without going to the bench for 3 minutes, 11 seconds, only getting a few seconds of a breather when a video review was held on his second goal.
“I wanted to get off but every time we got it” to the blue line, “it kept coming back in so I wanted to get it to the net,” Vanek said. “Marcus was the one who made the play. He didn’t just turn around and threw it. He made a great play to me and Ennis was there. All I had to do was get it over.”
“We needed it. If they kill that off and we don’t come out of that, this building erupts,” Ruff said. “But we scored. It gave us that little bit of life and to get the Ennis goal after the penalty expired, that’s probably the difference in the game.”
It was 3-3 after two periods and Boston took the lead at 1:46 of the third on David Krejci’s goal. But the Sabres bounced back to make it 4-4 just 42 seconds later as Alexander Sulzer snapped home a shot from the right circle for his first of the year after a neat backhand feed from Mikhail Grigorenko, who earned his first NHL assist.
Vanek then took over but he had plenty of help. Ryan Miller made 38 saves, several from in tight when the Sabres were protecting the lead.
“On the bench we kept telling ourselves, ‘Let’s go get the next one’ and we did,” Vanek said. “Obviously that was big. If they get that [fifth] one, I don’t think we’d be here right now but we didn’t let that happen.”
Sabres 7, Bruins 4
Slap shots: Vanek piles up three goals, two assists, feeds Hodgson for game-winner as Sabres rally from two-goal deficit. ... Teams split six goals in second period ... Grigorenko gets first NHL assist.
Fast fact: The Sabres have given up just two first-period goals this season but have yielded 12 in the second.
Next game: at Montreal Canadiens, Saturday, 2 p.m. in Bell Centre.