BY JOHN VOGL
Thomas Vanek got a glimpse of life alongside Cody Hodgson at the end of last season. The two skated together for the final 11 outings, and Vanek put up a point per game with three goals and eight assists. Obviously, he liked the combination.
Hodgson’s audition next to the Buffalo Sabres’ most potent scorer deserved an encore, so coach Lindy Ruff began the season Sunday with the center in the middle of Vanek and right wing Jason Pominville. Obviously, Vanek still likes it.
Vanek had the best day of his career during a 5-2 victory over Philadelphia, scoring twice and adding three assists as a sellout crowd in First Niagara Center welcomed the NHL back in a rollicking way.
“It’s a lot of luck when you get that many points,” said Vanek, who had the best outing by a Buffalo player in five years. “I was fortunate every pass I made went in, and when I scored, I scored. You won’t have many of those nights. You enjoy it, you like the win and you move on.”
Vanek can attribute the outing to luck all he wants, but he earned the avalanche of points. He skated hard, controlled pucks, made nice passes and tortured the Flyers and goaltender Ilya Bryzgalov.
“He’s got a lot of special talents, and he used them all,” said Sabres defenseman Tyler Myers, who snapped a 2-2 tie with 5:03 left.
Myers’ goal was one of three power-play tallies for the Sabres, who went 3 for 6 with the man advantage in a game that featured 20 penalties. Steve Ott opened the scoring and Hodgson added the fourth goal. Pominville had three assists.
“That line was the difference,” Ruff said. “Van was fabulous, [Hodgson] was terrific and Pommer was right somewhere between those two. We look at those guys as being our top line that can push us to that next level.”
Hodgson is embracing the top-line opportunity he has craved. He wanted out of Vancouver because he was stuck on the third line, and skating with Pominville and Vanek means significant minutes.
“He’s pretty excited about this opportunity he’s getting,” Pominville said. “He took advantage of it.”
The Sabres took advantage of the Flyers’ trips to the penalty box. The opening goal of the season came with 11:07 gone and gave the power play a perfect start.
Vanek, from behind the net, fed Pominville near the bottom of the left circle. The captain spotted Ott alone in the slot, and the newcomer crouched low to rip a one-timer past Bryzgalov.
The Flyers caught the Sabres flat-footed to start the second. Philadelphia took the first five shots and needed less than five minutes to take a 2-1 lead on goals by Sean Couturier and Claude Giroux.
The Sabres’ power play struck again to tie the game with 4:06 left in the second, and Vanek’s goal was a beauty.
Pominville, from his own zone, hit Drew Stafford along at the boards at the Flyers’ blue line. Vanek took off down the middle, got behind Philly’s defensemen and accepted Stafford’s pass for a breakaway.
Bryzgalov didn’t stand a chance. Vanek made one deke left, the goalie bit and the winger went around him on the right to dump the puck into an empty net.
“We talked about playing the game quick, not slowing it down, which we were pretty good at in the past,” Vanek said. “That was a good example of that.”
Myers had just hopped off the bench to join the play on the winning goal. He rushed into the Flyers’ zone, got a cross-ice pass from Tyler Ennis and spotted Vanek in front. Myers kept his shot along the ice in hopes of a deflection, and the puck hit Flyers defenseman Kimmo Timonen and caromed through Bryzgalov’s legs.
The goalie stopped Vanek on a breakaway with just under four minutes to play, but the rebound popped into the air and landed in the crease. Hodgson rushed in to tip it home, with the puck going off his skates and stick as he hit the brakes in the blue paint.
“I had three or four point-blank shots earlier in the game, and all it took was for me to stop in front of the net for me to get one,” he said.
Vanek, fittingly, sent the crowd of 19,070 home with an empty-net breakaway goal in the final minute. He and the Sabres hopped on the bus for Monday's game in Toronto after giving the fans a stick-waving salute from center ice.
“Our line played real well,” Hodgson said. “There’s always openings out there and lots of free ice playing with those guys because guys key on them so much. I just try to complement them as much as possible.”