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180 Degrees
Vanek's little play sends game in opposite direction

Thomas Vanek celebrates his first goal of the game with Sabres' co-captain Daniel Briere.
BUFFALO (LGS) — Thomas Vanek scored twice in the Buffalo Sabres' 5-2 win in Game 1 on Wednesday night, his enormous offensive skills on full display. He skated out as one of the game's three stars because he made big play after big play in the New York Rangers' zone.

But long before he tipped Dmitri Kalinin's point shot between Henrik Lundqvist's legs or put Paul Mara on the burning deck and wristed the puck over him inside the right post, Vanek made the smallest of defensive plays in his own zone.

As it turns out, a humble backcheck could very well have been his biggest contribution to victory.

Late on a four-on-four situation with four minutes to go in the opening period, Vanek started pestering Marcel Hossa behind the Rangers' net, careful not to foul, and didn't quit until he had stripped the puck off the streaking forward's stick in the left-wing corner of the Buffalo zone.

Vanek grabbed the puck, quickly turned up ice and sent a long pass that landed on Tim Connolly's stick at center.

Yeah, that rush.

Connolly carried into the Ranger zone, stuttered at the top of the left circle and put an ungodly move on Michal Rozsival, placing the puck behind his own back, slipping it through his own legs and stepping to the net. He then went forehand-backhand as the fans lifted out of their seats, but Lundqvist made an incredible blocker save at the left post that brought 18,690 fannies back to earth.

It didn't really matter that Connolly failed to score. He had changed the game, one that had pretty much belonged to the Rangers — when they weren't shorthanded, that is.

Off the opening faceoff, it was as if the surging Islanders had hung around after Game 5 and slipped on Ranger red and blue, one New York team picking up right where the other left off.

Ryan Miller had to squeeze his pads together just 28 seconds into the game to keep a bull-rushing Jaromir Jagr's wrister from the top of the crease from finding his five-hole and getting the series off to a shocking start. It was only one of a handful of magnificent stops for first-star Miller.

The Rangers didn't let up. But at the four-minute mark Sean Avery did his best to give that early momentum away when he reached around Connolly on a lazy forecheck, grabbed his chest and got caught with his hand in the nipple jar. The Sabres peppered Lundqvist in the first minute of the power play, to no avail.

New York again came close after a faceoff loss by Derek Roy a couple of minutes after the penalty expired, Miller sprawling to cover Petr Prucha's poke at a puck that was perilously close to the goal line. But then at midperiod Mara pulled an Avery and took a bad penalty when he gave the Buffalo goaltender the old forearm shiver on a drive to the net.

The Sabres still couldn't seize control.

When Lundqvist put his stick on the ice and robbed Chris Drury from the doorstep on the ensuing power play, the frustration was already beginning to build, and when the Sabres went back on another power play two minutes later, there was a feeling they either had to score on this power play or risk the game becoming one of those "one chance at the other end" affairs.

That or start to dominate the game five-on-five.

Four-on-four would work, too, and that was about to be arranged, thanks to Jaro Spacek's knee on Avery that was more than worth canceling out a power play — not only because it left The Creep writhing in pain but also because it opened up some ice.

And the game.

Re-enter the backchecking Vanek and the rushing Connolly and the flinching Lundqvist and the roaring crowd.

The puck dribbles into the corner to Lundqvist's right after the save, and Kotalik feels a burst of adrenaline, feeds off the rush, drives Rozsival into the boards. The defenseman is history, and the Rangers in Game 1 aren't far behind.

Daniel Briere barely misses a breakaway pass that changes direction off a Ranger outside the NY line.

Drew Stafford skates down the left wing and conjures up some Connolly magic, passing the puck to himself, the puck beating Stafford to the goal, but not Lundqvist.

Dainius Zubrus takes three Rangers to the wall at the left point in the Rangers' zone and holds them off long enough for Drury to steal the puck and execute a give-and-go with Stafford. Lundqvist stops Drury again, and Stafford can't convert the rebound.

With the announcement of one minute to go in the period, the crowd jacks up the decibel level another notch and another notch and another notch. Bam! Sabres on the warpath.

Vanek steals Matt Cullen's breakout pass with half a minute to go, reverses his field and beats Daniel Girardi to the net. On his knees after being held by Girardi from behind, he hooks a backhand on goal, forcing Lundqvist to make one more big save.

Before the rout is on, the rout is on.

With three goals in 4:05 late in the second period, including two by Vanek, the Sabres blew the game wide open, but remember that long before he tipped Dmitri Kalinin's point shot between Henrik Lundqvist's legs or put Paul Mara on the burning deck and wristed the puck over him inside the right post, Vanek made the smallest of defensive plays in his own zone.

As it turns out, a humble backcheck was big enough to send the game 155 feet, and 180 degrees, in the other direction.
By Mark Zampogna, LGS Featured Columnist
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