Like the Buffalo Sabres, Thomas Vanek hadn't fulfilled expectations against a well-built squad through 17 games. If there was a more disparaging reality than the 5-9-3 record the Buffalo Sabres owned heading into Saturday, it was the notion that they'd only defeated weak or mediocre sides - Ottawa, Atlanta, Toronto and New Jersey twice - and that their scoring specialist was firing blanks. Stuck on four goals, Vanek had only found the mark three times courtesy of those less talented opponents and once in a loss to the Philadelphia Flyers.
After Saturday's match with the Washington Capitals, that is no longer the case. Buffalo can at last know that it's overcome a contending squad, earning their overdue first home win of the year. And Vanek can hold his head high because his two tallies were crucial, especially the overtime heroics, as he was the best forward ahead of Alexander Ovechkin and Washington's plethora of game-breakers.
Jhonas Enroth played over 60 minutes three straight times in the week, but Ryan Miller returned from a knee injury and was ready for the arsenal that would be bearing down on him. Braden Holtby was selected by head coach Bruce Boudreau in his third career National Hockey League fixture. Neither goaltender let their teammates down, as the exquisite saves weren't hard to locate.
Grabbing the puck behind his own net, Tyler Myers awkwardly lost his footing and turned the puck over. Alexander Semin dished it off to Karl Alzner who buried just his second ever goal. While Myers' offensive status can still be relied on, his defensive work stayed unconvincing and this latest gaffe will have the 'sophomore slump' headlines printed in bold.
Rob Niedermayer intercepted a pass and went easily by Ovechkin to create a 2-on-1 shorthanded with Patrick Kaleta. Holtby, cool as they come, caught Patrick Kaleta's point-blank shot in his glove. Miller stamped his authority on the evening when he steered away Ovechkin's breakaway late in the first period.
Buffalo's best defenseman to date, Steve Montador, found the equalizer with a slap shot that unquestionably left a mark on the back bar it slammed. In and out of the net so fast, it's speed was up there in Ovechkin's range. Minutes later, Vanek deposited a rebound on the powerplay to put Buffalo in front. The expression of relief on his face was evident, as their have been too many tips, rebounds and general shots that he's thrown everywhere except where it counts.
Unwilling to let it end at that, Washington kept on attacking and Nicklas Backstrom showed his slick abilities by releasing a sudden shot out of nowhere. The crossbar could only slow it down, as the Capitals had swallowed the optimism from the arena. Coming within inches of a winner in the last minute of the third period and hitting the frame of the goal in overtime, Buffalo missed a host of chances to punish them.
But Vanek wasn't content to await for the shootout. Turning with the puck at center ice, the Austrian simply took on another gear, skating swiftly into Washington area. There, he made quick work of two rookies, catching John Carlson staring and going around the challenging Holtby, calmly backhanding in the deciding marker. A fitting and deserving conclusion, as the home crowd had a reason to celebrate for a change.
For the fourth game running, Buffalo fell behind, pushed themselves into sudden death and got out of jail with at least a point. With a 3-0-1 record in the past seven days, they are beginning to right the ship and instill belief back where it belongs. Under .500 they may be, but finished they are not.
Man Of The Match: Thomas Vanek. Shedding his lackluster mode, Vanek was the catalyst for Buffalo and rewarded himself with a couple of tallies. While the powerplay provided him with a simple entry on the first, he had his work cut out for him on the second, leaving Carlson in a confused state before he met the media. Must not let himself take the next few matches lightly, because these performances need to become the norm rather than an exception.
Flop Of The Match: Alexander Ovechkin. A rarity to see his name here, but the Russian's minus-one rating and single shot on target tell the story. Perhaps it's more a demonstration of a team display by Buffalo, than failure by Ovechkin. Even the best have their impact shifted occasionally.