By Tim Schmitt
BUFFALO — It’s hard to say that a guy who leads the National Hockey League’s most high-powered offense in goals was slumping, but Thomas Vanek’s first-period marker officially put to rest any talk of a relapse of last season’s weak spring.
Vanek, who had gone seven games without scoring before Sunday’s goal in a 4-3 overtime loss to Atlanta, scored for the second time in three games, tipping a Dmitri Kalinin shot past Andrew Raycroft just over five minutes into the opening period. The goal was Vanek’s 36th on the season, but he wasn’t through.
In the third, with the Sabres trailing 4-1, Vanek added his 37th as he blew a shot past Andrew Raycroft on the power play that cut the lead to two.
Vanek was named the game’s first star.
He hasn’t managed much of a dent on the scoresheet, but Dainius Zubrus made a huge play in the waning moments, dropping to block a shot from the point.
The Leafs still managed a great opportunity, though, as a loose puck found Mats Sundin all alone and to the left of the net. Sundin apppeared to have the upper half of the net wide open, but Ryan Miller got his pad across and made the save, preserving Buffalo’s 48th victory of the season.
Buffalo’s climbing back from a big deficit against the Leafs isn’t something new this season. On Nov. 22, Toronto raced out to a 2-0 edge, only to watch the Sabres respond with four straight goals. After the Leafs tied the contest, Buffalo scored three more to secure a 7-4 victory.
For the Leafs, this was a devastating blow. Toronto opened the night two points out of eighth place, with two games in hand over Montreal and one over Carolina.
The Sabres continued to emerge from the power-play funk, scoring twice with the man-advantage, including Daniel Briere’s goal to make it 4-3 in the third period. After going 0-for-25 on the power play, the Sabres have scored four times in their last nine chances.
While Buffalo didn’t have much trouble with the Leafs’ top line, the pairing of Boyd Devereaux, Matt Stajan and Alex Steen shined brightly. Stajan played hard throughout, and scored Toronto’s second goal on a pretty feed from Steen. Stajan then setup Devereaux on a great feed after intercepting a Brian Campbell pass.
Contact group sports editor Tim Schmitt at 282-2311, Ext. 2266.