By Bill Hoppe
OK, it’s still a bit early, just nine games into the new season. Sabres sniper Thomas Vanek almost certainly won’t finish with 64 goals and 128 points, his current pace. Don’t count on captain Jason Pominville having 118 points come April, either.
But the linemates, two slick stars due for breakout seasons, possess a supreme, undeniable chemistry with rookie center Luke Adam. There’s a certain precision when the veterans skate together.
Three weeks in, the wingers haven’t let up a bit. On the left side, Vanek already has seven goals and 14 points, both good for second in the NHL. Meanwhile, Pominville has four goals and 13 points, fourth in the league heading into tonight’s tilt against the Florida Panthers at the First Niagara Center.
What’s going on with these guys? Yes, it’s not even Halloween, but the Sabres haven’t had a 50-goal or 100-point performer since 1992-93, when Pat LaFontaine and Alexander Mogilny both went over the marks.
“We’re doing a good job at talking off the ice and seeing what we can do better and where we want to be in certain situations,” Pominville said Friday. “I think it reflects on the way we’ve been playing on the ice. But we’re working hard, we’re skating hard and we’re creating things offensively.”
No kidding. Vanek has points in eight games this year, Pominville seven. In Thursday’s 4-2 win over Columbus, Pominville had two goals and three points while Vanek added three assists.
“That’s what you need in this league,” Vanek said about the chemistry he shares beside Pominville. “It’s tough to do it on your own. You need someone you can click with, have chemistry with. I think we have that.”
Perhaps most impressively, they’re doing most of their damage at even strength, where Vanek has nine points and Pominville eight.
“It really is some good chemistry right now between (Pominville) and Thomas,” Sabres coach Lindy Ruff said. “You hope for things like that. They feed off each other really well. I think Luke has been a big part of it. Luke has skated well on that line.
“I like their even-strength play, which is something, when you’re starting to score even-strength goals, it makes a big difference on the balance sheet.”
The duo might have more exploits ready for tonight. In 24 career games each against Florida, Vanek has 15 goals and 21 points, Pominville nine tallies and 25 points.
They began playing together regularly Jan. 1, immediately shaking off their wretched starts. Vanek compiled 48 points during that stretch, Pominville 37.
Now, after nearly 10 months together, they know each other’s instincts.
“You don’t have to think as much because we talk and we know a lot of times where we’re going to be before we get the puck,” Pominville said. “I think it makes a big difference. You don’t even have to put your head up. You just know he’s going to be there, or he knows where I’ll be. Just got to give a yell and it usually works out.”
Adam’s been the line’s glue. With three goals and eight points, the 21-year-old, a late replacement when Derek Roy hurt his shoulder last month, ranks second in rookie scoring.
“Van’s had a hell of a start here,” Adam said. “They compliment so well. I’m fortunate to be given the opportunity to play with these guys. I’m just trying to take full advantage of it.”
Vanek said: “(Adam’s) getting better in his defensive zone. He’s good in the middle distributing puck to the left and the right. He doesn’t favor one side, which I think is important because it keeps the D guessing. He’s been good.”
The wild October’s especially surprising considering Pominville usually starts slowly before going on a second-half tear. A year ago, as he struggled to come back from a concussion, Pominville didn’t record his 13th point until Dec. 23, his 26th game. This season, he was recovering from a sliced tendon in his right leg.
“Last year was a battle because of the injury and having to miss time, and then it took a while to kind of get going again, and then (I) got going and got put on a line with Thomas,” Pominville said. “That’s where we kind of took off, had a good, strong finish to the season.”
Pominville’s never had more than 34 goals or 80 points. Vanek’s never topped 43 or 84. In recent seasons, their statistics, while still strong, haven’t reached elite levels.
Now they appear poised to post some gaudy numbers from a past era.
“They know where they’re going,” Ruff said, “and they know where they’re going to put it.”
That’s in the net.
Agitator Patrick Kaleta, who fought Thursday despite an infected cut on his nose, was sporting a full cage on his helmet during practice Friday. The cut’s turning a yellowish color and causing his face to swell.
“We’re hoping with medication that it’ll go down,” Ruff said. “Obviously, isn’t good looking, but it’s something that happens when you get caught and you’re sweating in it. He gets a surface infection. He’s not the prettiest guy right now, but he can still be effective.”
Kaleta scored the late winner against Columbus.
Center Jochen Hecht (concussion) “wasn’t doing well” and received Friday off. The German, who’s been practicing fully recently, hasn’t played yet this season.
“Some of it’s we’re just trying to figure some things out,” Ruff said. “Not to go into detail, he could be back to full go (today). He’s seeing some people.”