Thomas Vanek could have easily added another goal and assist to his impressive totals last game. He shot twice at an empty net late and set up Jason Pominville on the doorstep early.
Nothing clicked as the NHL’s top scorer failed to increase his lead. Instead, Vanek enters today’s game against Pittsburgh with zero points in his last three outings.
He’s not worried. The Buffalo Sabres’ offensive star is confident he and linemates Cody Hodgson and Pominville can find the net in First Niagara Center.
“I’m feeling good,” Vanek said Saturday. “Obviously, the three of us had a good run, but I think we’re practicing well, figuring things out, and we’ll be back on the score sheet.”
It would have been unrealistic to expect Vanek to keep up his ridiculous pace. He had 11 goals and 23 points in his first 11 games. But when he fails to show up on the stat sheet in three straight, it gets noticed.
“He’s not hurt,” coach Lindy Ruff said after practice. “He didn’t go well the last couple. I still think he made a great play to Pominville early in the game. I think it hit a crossbar, and he obviously had the empty-net opportunity. Sometimes it’s one or two games that you get a little out of sync. I think you’ll see him right back on track.”
The Penguins certainly don’t view Vanek as slumping.
“He’s been very hot this season, and every year I think he’s always a threat offensively,” Pittsburgh goaltender Marc-Andre Fleury said. “He’s got a quick release, good shot and is always in the right spot around the net it seems. He’s certainly a guy we have to keep an eye on.”
One of the Sabres’ biggest question marks entering the season was how well their young centers would perform against the league’s best middle men. Tyler Ennis and Hodgson were looking forward to the challenge, and they’ve got a monumental one today against Sidney Crosby and Evgeni Malkin.
“You look at Malkin and Crosby, you’re looking at the cream of the crop,” Ruff said. “Obviously, we’re a little bit younger in that area, but I think that both those guys at times have shown they can handle it. At times there’s been a little bit of chaos, but for the most part they’ve been able to wrap their arms around that.”
Ennis and wingers Drew Stafford and Marcus Foligno are coming off their best game. They displayed an ideal mix of strength and playmaking against the Bruins to combine for five points, including Stafford’s first goal of the season.
“Marcus did a great job hitting and forechecking hard, using his size,” Ennis said. “Staff was making plays. It was nice to see him get that one and get the monkey off his back. The mojo is coming a little bit, and we just need to continue it against Pittsburgh.
“Those guys are phenomenal,” he said of Crosby and Malkin, “and we’re going to have to do a great job defensively against them. They’re two of the best players in the world. They do incredible things on the ice, and we’re going to have to really focus on our coverage in the D-zone and be aware whenever those guys are on the ice.”
Sabres defenseman Andrej Sekera (charley horse) skipped practice and is doubtful for today. The only other change during the Sabres’ workout came in the middle of the third and fourth lines.
Jochen Hecht rejoined wingers Steve Ott and Nathan Gerbe on the third line, while rookie Mikhail Grigorenko skated with Patrick Kaleta, Cody McCormick and John Scott. Grigorenko started the Boston game in the middle of Ott and Gerbe but played just 8:08.
“I just thought that Grigo got off to a tough start,” Ruff said. “Jochen skated well, had two or three opportunities. We needed to match their speed. It wasn’t going well for him, and that’s all part of the process.
“That’s all part of what we’re trying to do with him here, get him the extra work, get him stronger, have him work with our skating coach, try to go through the details that are going to make him a more powerful skater and a more efficient skater. He’s only 18. He’s pretty good for 18, and I think if you do things right he should be a heck of a player in a couple years.”