Light playoff duty sent Vanek a clear message

  • Article by: MICHAEL RUSSO , Star Tribune
  • Updated: March 9, 2007 - 8:43 PM

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.

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."

Lineup shuffle

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.

Etc.

• 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).

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Houston 1 FINAL
Miami 1
Philadelphia 1 FINAL
Minnesota 7
St. Louis 3 FINAL
Detroit 4
Baltimore - WP: T. Wilson 10 FINAL
NY Yankees - LP: S. Baker 2
Boston 9 FINAL
Tampa Bay 6
Toronto 3 FINAL
Pittsburgh 8
Atlanta 5 FINAL
Toronto 3
Washington 2 FINAL
NY Mets 10
Chicago Cubs 5 FINAL
Cincinnati 9
San Diego 3 FINAL
Texas 2
San Francisco 9 FINAL
Seattle 8
Colorado 4 FINAL
Chicago Cubs 18
Cleveland 3 FINAL
Milwaukee 2
Oakland 10 FINAL
Chicago WSox 4
Los Angeles 5 FINAL
LA Angels 4
Kansas City 10 FINAL
Arizona 5
Atlanta 100 FINAL
Charlotte 115
New York 80 FINAL
Chicago 111
Golden State 108 FINAL
Milwaukee 95
Oklahoma City 89 FINAL
Utah 94
Denver 114 FINAL
Portland 120
Nashville 4 FINAL
Washington 3
Arizona 2 FINAL
Pittsburgh 3
San Jose 3 FINAL(SO)
Philadelphia 2
Anaheim 3 FINAL
NY Islanders 2
NY Rangers 2 FINAL
Boston 4
Tampa Bay 0 FINAL
Detroit 4
New Jersey 1 FINAL
Carolina 3
Florida 2 FINAL(OT)
Montreal 3
Ottawa 3 FINAL(OT)
Toronto 4
Los Angeles 1 FINAL
Minnesota 4
Columbus 4 FINAL
St. Louis 2
Buffalo 3 FINAL
Colorado 5
Dallas 4 FINAL(OT)
Vancouver 3
Arizona 78 FINAL
Wisconsin 85
Canisius 73 FINAL
NJIT 78
Notre Dame 66 FINAL
Kentucky 68
San Jose 1 FINAL
New England 2
Orlando City 2 FINAL
Montreal 2
Los Angeles 0 FINAL
D.C. 1
Sporting Kansas City 1 FINAL
New York City 0
Red Bull New York 2 FINAL
Columbus 1
Portland 1 FINAL
Vancouver FC 2
Colorado 0 FINAL
Houston 0
Seattle 0 FINAL
FC Dallas 0
Texas 54 FINAL
(1) Connecticut 105
Dayton 82 FINAL
(8) Louisville 66
(16) Duke 55 FINAL
(4) Maryland 65
Gonzaga 69 FINAL
(6) Tennessee 73
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