Never far away from expectations, Thomas Vanek’s contract and talent subject him to relentless pressure on a daily basis. A 43-goal, 84-point eruption as a sophomore tends to do that for a player, not to mention the serious rise in pay he received for his work. But, for all the accusations Vanek has endured when the goals aren’t coming off his stick, the 26-year-old’s heart and tenacity are naturally present for the Buffalo Sabres.
As his influence or lack thereof goes in spurts, the multi-talented Austrian is exploiting another facet of the sport; the shootout competition. It is the only feature of hockey which focuses on individual conquest above teamwork. A sharpshooter views it as the ultimate showdown, but shootouts are a completely different animal from a break-away created in the game itself. An abundance of time and no pressure from a back-check may lead to much thought about their strategy – a situation that leaves them uncertain.
Of course, the execution is imperative, but plenty of forwards are better under duress, hence why they are unable to convert their shots in the shootout as regularly. Instincts take over during the game and whatever happens, for better or for worse, happens. Desperately in need of points, Buffalo is one of four clubs to have obtained the maximum from the deciding tie-breaker, going 4-0.
Here, Vanek is discovering yet another niche for himself, succeeding every time head coach Lindy Ruff has called his number this year. Each season, a fresh face seems to emerge as the best of the best in shootouts, and No.26 is presently on top of the list in overall tallies and percentage. Vanek’s variety is serving him well, as he’s left netminders frozen and frustrated, wondering if they ever owned a glimmer of hope.
November 6, 2010 – Buffalo 3-2 Toronto
Jhonas Enroth confirmed his class on this evening, putting every inch of his 5-foot-10 frame in front of pucks and preserving a lifeline for his teammates. Better late than never, Jochen Hecht scored his first goal of the campaign while they were 14 seconds away from another defeat. Overtime saw close calls for both sides, but the five minutes went by instantly. Phil Kessel tried his luck, unsuccessfully, in focusing on Enroth’s glove hand. Then, it was Vanek’s turn. Skating in calmly, he tucked the puck inside the post flawlessly and Jean-Sebastian Giguere barely flinched.
November 10, 2010 – Buffalo 5-4 New Jersey
A few nights after escaping Toronto with a comeback win, the Sabres were again depending on Enroth because of Ryan Miller’s unavailability. New Jersey went with Johan Hedberg for their own reasons. Three lead changes and eight goals later, the coaches were asked to write in their shootout participants. Faking a shot by circling his stick around the puck first, Vanek snapped it tenderly into the right corner with one swift motion. When he was a rookie, he first performed this illusory ploy on legendary goaltender Dominik Hasek.
December 4, 2010 – Buffalo 1-0 Ottawa
Shutting out the Columbus Blue Jackets 24 hours prior to this Northeast Division quarrel, Miller wouldn’t provide the Senators with any openings. Along with Brian Elliott, the two shot-stoppers were sublime and neither conceded in 65 minutes of play. Only one player delivered the goods in the shootout. Where Vanek flashed his subtle snap shot in Toronto and New Jerseys, the Ottawa crowd caught a glimpse of his power, as he unleashed a bullet from just inside the face-off circles.
January 1, 2011 – Buffalo 7-6 Boston
Defensemen and forwards were scoring at will on this New Year’s day encounter; Tim Thomas and Tuukka Rask shared the responsibility for Boston, although Miller was forced to withstand the entirety of the match. The goals didn’t let up in the shootout, as Vanek, Drew Stafford and Tyler Ennis took turns upsetting Thomas. Fancying his textbook slap shot, Buffalo’s second shooter allied extreme force with impeccable aim. Later, Ennis put Thomas at his mercy with sneaky stick-handling and Zdeno Chara fired wide, failing to extend the fixture.
Special teams are not clicking, a decent winning streak hasn’t occurred and a handful of players are in line for career-damaging seasons – the crisis is certainly deepening in Buffalo. So, it is unsurprising that they have been better in sequences revolving around luck and two players on the ice, than competing together as a unit.
Almost single-handedly, Vanek has led his side to four bonus points and even though the shootout receives its fair share of hostility, it helps struggling sides leapfrog others in the standings. Philadelphia, one of the league’s distinguishable clubs, began their emanation by qualifying for the postseason. And it was the shootout that made it all possible.
Will Vanek’s one-on-one success have such an effect on the Buffalo Sabres? The real decider will come months from now when the Eastern Conference’s top half is settled.