No panic with Vanek

LANCE HORNBY, QMI Agency

, Last Updated: 10:49 AM ET

BUFFALO -- The locals described it as a Vanek Attack, the shakes reverberating through the Sabres bench when top scorer Thomas Vanek hobbled off of the ice with a left knee injury, perhaps taking the team's playoff hopes with him.

Buffalo's 2-0 lead during Game 2 evaporated and, though it briefly restored a one-goal lead, that too was gone in the third period. It was the first time in 32 instances this year they had choked when up after 40 minutes.

But there is cause for hope on the Vanek front as the series -- tied 1-1 -- changes cities for Game 3. Vanek made the plane to Boston on Sunday and coach Lindy Ruff said it wasn't just for show.

"I was pleasantly surprised the damage isn't severe," Ruff said Sunday after an optional practice at HSBC Arena, where Vanek wasn't made available to the media. "When a player comes off like that, you obviously fear the worst."

Still refusing to elaborate on the injury, which occurred when Bruins' Johnny Boychuk hacked at him on a partial breakaway and then both went heavily into the boards, Ruff said Vanek could be back in the series, but was "doubtful" for Game 3 on Monday night.

Ruff's immediate problem this week is getting the rest of the Sabres to snap out of their funk and start giving him something extra. Even after Game 1, there were concerns the team is too reliant on goalie Ryan Miller and that its offence is too centralized around Vanek's 28 goals and Derek Roy's team-high 69 points. Neither of those strengths was evident in Game 2 as the low-scoring Bruins won 5-3 and made the Sabres look timid.

Ruff has to get his 0-for-9 power play in gear and squeeze more out of players such as Tim Connolly, who was second in team points with 65, but blanked for his 19th consecutive playoff game on Saturday.

Ruff was willing to give Connolly some slack because of a lingering foot injury, but his frequent disappearing acts have been a concern and the playoff drought has not helped his reputation. Connolly was also fingered by Ruff for not getting back in time from a missed rush to lock up the Bruins before Michael Ryder engineered the tying goal, part of Connolly's minus-2 in the third period.

"We got an okay (effort) from him in Game 1, jumping into playoff intensity," Ruff said. "Not much in Game 2, where the pace was different and he'll have to catch up fast. That means (shifts) will have to be shorter. On the other side, I have to get more out of that shift in back-checking, dirty areas, driving the net, just like every other player. He should feel better in Game 3."

Defenceman Steve Montador says the team is now better prepared to deal with the loss of Vanek and, combined with adopting the road mentality of a playoff team, should be able to cause Boston problems at home this week.

"We're going to be asking a little more from every guy," Montador said. "Depth is a large part of playoff success and we have a lot of eager players here. We've had some goals from the back end (Tyler Myers and Craig Rivet) which is important to spread out the offence. You want Vanek back as soon as possible, but having said that, it opens up another chance for somebody. That's how guys make their careers."

Montador was talking about a farmhand possibly replacing Vanek, but Ruff has a few options he can try.

Buffalo's hits-per-game leader, Mike Grier, was used on Vanek's line with centre Derek Roy and Tim Kennedy the rest of Game 2, and the Sabres can also use Adam Mair, make a call to Portland or pray that proven scorer Drew Stafford gets back from a concussion in time.

Stafford was to be tested Sunday after missing a week and, if cleared, would be allowed to fly to Boston on Monday, though Ruff is concerned his lack of conditioning would be a factor.

Stafford got through Sunday's practice with little outward difficulty, but what's going on inside his noggin has doctors concerned.

"It's no fun. You want to be a part of (playoffs)," said Stafford, who had 14 goals this year, compared to the 16 by Grier and Mair combined.


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