BUFFALO, N.Y. - Thomas Vanek thought he was done attending class when he left the University of Minnesota in 2004, but the young Buffalo Sabres forward was taught a harsh lesson last postseason by Sabres coach Lindy Ruff.
During Buffalo's run to the Eastern Conference finals, Vanek, despite a 25-goal rookie season, played only 10 of 18 games, averaging less than 11 minutes a game.
The message was blunt: "Commit yourself to being better," Ruff said Friday morning. "We asked him to make improvements in some areas, and part of it was the offseason program and the conditioning. Get leaner and quicker, which would mean better endurance. Make a bigger commitment."
Vanek took the playoff sit-down to heart, worked out hard last summer at his offseason home in Minneapolis and returned this season in fabulous shape ready to prove himself.
The result? Before Friday night's game with the Wild, the former Gophers star, at 23 years old, ranked ninth in the NHL with 34 goals and second, behind Red Wings superstar defenseman Nicklas Lidstrom, with a plus-36 rating.
"It was obviously disappointing not playing in the playoffs," said Vanek, the 2003 WCHA Rookie of the Year and NCAA Frozen Four MVP. "Any competitive athlete wants to be in there during the fun times of the year. I take that first year as a good learning experience. I knew what I had to change.
"I needed to bulk down a little bit, get into better shape and get a little faster."
Vanek is as natural a goal scorer as you get, but Ruff rode him hard defensively last season.
"It all comes down to quickness," Ruff said. "Part of being in better shape means you can work harder at the other part of the game. He's done that. He's shown a commitment to get better."
Vanek spent much of this season on a line with Maxim Afinogenov and Derek Roy, but Drew Stafford has been inserted since Afinogenov injured his wrist three weeks ago. The line hasn't missed a beat.
"It's got a lot to do with [Vanek]," said Roy, who also played with Vanek during the lockout at AHL Rochester. "He was mentally and physically ready for this season. He finds the holes really well, is real good with the puck, is real smart and does all the little things that make him a good player.
"And this year, he's been a lot more consistent."
That doesn't mean Ruff won't continue to ride him. Asked jokingly if Vanek will be a regular this postseason, a straight-faced Ruff said, "At least right now, he will."
Wes Walz missed his second game and Derek Boogaard his third game Friday, both because of sore backs. Boogaard was sent back to Minnesota for treatment. Matt Foy was recalled from AHL Houston but was scratched because Mark Parrish (leg) was able to play.
Rookie Josh Harding started in goal, and Manny Fernandez backed up.
Thursday, the Wild became the second team in history and first in 81 years to win its first four games in Boston (original Ottawa Senators, 1924-26).