Thomas Vanek, the Sabres’ perennial goal-scoring leader, knows a thing or two about finding the net. It takes timing, talent and luck, three things he’s already seen in Buffalo prospect Joel Armia.
“He puts himself in good spots,” Vanek said Thursday. “Those are the things you can’t teach. You either have it or you don’t, and he seems to have it.”
The timing and talent have been evident throughout Armia’s first training camp. The luck showed itself during his First Niagara Center debut.
The 20-year-old winger scored his first goal in a Sabres uniform Thursday night during a 5-2 victory over Carolina. No matter how long he plays, few will come easier. Hurricanes goaltender Anton Khudobin tried clearing the puck from behind his net, but he instead put it onto the tape of Armia. The sniper calmly went to the front and dumped the puck into an empty cage.
“I just tried to get that as fast as possible,” Armia said. “Everything has been good so far, and this game was also a good experience for me.”
The crowd of 17,626 that has been waiting more than two years to see Armia applauded, a sound the Sabres hope becomes a regular event.
“He’s got the skill level,” coach Ron Rolston said. “He can skate, and he’s a big body.
“It’s outstanding. His hands and finish are very good.”
Armia has been on Buffalo’s radar since the team selected him with the 16th overall pick of the 2011 draft. He spent the past three seasons playing in the Finnish Elite League, and he finished second in goals for Assat all three years. The potency piqued people’s interest.
“It’s not just the people,” Vanek said. “It’s all of us in here, too. You can see the talent there.”
While the talent is unquestioned, the query is whether Armia will step right into the NHL. The Sabres could certainly use his scoring touch, but it’s a big jump from Europe to North America.
“I hope I’m in the NHL this season,” Armia said. “I try to give everything I’ve got in the practice, and I hope that’s enough.
“The biggest difference here is the smaller rink. When you get the puck you don’t have too much time, so I just have to learn how to react faster and get used to this.”
Rolston gave Armia a prime opportunity to shine in front of the home folks. The winger skated alongside Vanek and center Cody Hodgson, two-thirds of the team’s No. 1 line.
“It’s been a good experience meeting the guys here,” said Armia, who’s kept an eye on Vanek. “It’s going to help a lot to play with him. It’s going to be a good experience for me to see what he’s doing on the ice and maybe try to learn something from him.”
If Armia can keep up the three keys to scoring, it won’t be luck that the time for his talent is now.
“He’s smart and he makes good plays,” Vanek said. “He knows what he’s doing.”
The Sabres moved to 3-0 in preseason. They overcame a slow start, tied the game twice and pulled away late.
Penalty trouble for Buffalo allowed the visitors to take 19 shots and a 1-0 lead into the first intermission. Armia’s gift tied the game, and Johan Larsson’s first goal answered an earlier tally by the Hurricanes.
Vanek’s pinpoint pass to a driving Hodgson gave the Sabres their first lead with 5:48 left. Larsson and Brayden McNabb sealed the win with goals in the final five minutes.
Ryan Miller played the whole game for the Sabres and made 34 saves.
“It felt good to be in the mix, in a battle, in a 2-2 game,” Miller said. “That’s the kind of stuff you want to get into right away. I thought as a group we reacted pretty well.”