Thomas Vanek learned early in his career how tough it is to win in the playoffs.
When Vanek and the Buffalo Sabres beat the Philadelphia Flyers in six games in 2006 to advance, the rookie winger looked across the locker room at 37-year-old Teppo Numminen, who was on the verge of tears. Numminen had never made it out of the first round in his previous 16 NHL seasons and was overjoyed.
"It hit me right there and then, 'Man this is hard,'" Vanek said.
Vanek is now on the other side. In the playoffs for the seventh time, he is the Columbus Blue Jackets' oldest player at 34. Just like Rick Nash in Boston, postseason struggles and inconsistencies have followed Vanek his entire career. Based on his play down the stretch and in Game 1 against Washington, he looks poised for some playoff redemption.
"A very consistent scorer throughout his year and has a lot to prove and wants to win the Stanley Cup," Columbus general manager Jarmo Kekalainen said Friday. "That's why he's excited to be here. He wants to prove people wrong, if they think that he can't do it in the playoffs. He wants to show that he can, and he had a good start."
Vanek had a goal and an assist to help the Blue Jackets take a 1-0 series lead on the Capitals, and young teammate Artemi Panarin scored the game-winner to finish with three points — two more than he had in Chicago's first-round sweep at the hands of the Predators a year ago. Kekalainen pointed out Panarin was a point-a-game player for the Blackhawks in the playoffs two years ago, so hold up on the reputation rehab there.
The same goes for Capitals center Evgeny Kuznetsov, who has been up and down in the playoffs. The 25-year-old from the same town in Russia as Panarin already has more goals in one game this year than he did in the 2016 playoffs, when Washington lost in the second round.
Vanek and Nash know they're running out of time to win the Cup and make a difference on that journey.
Nash, who drew two penalties and played over 17 minutes in his return from injury in the Bruins' Game 1 blowout of the Maple Leafs, has seen his goal production drop by half from the regular season to the playoffs over the course of his career. The 33-year-old trade-deadline pickup should get plenty of chances to show he can still be a playoff performer.
"He's an important player for us," Bruins coach Bruce Cassidy said. "That deal was made for a reason. He's an elite player ... makes us more of a threat (as) a team. He's just a proven player in this league that can finish, that can win pucks and get to the net."
Getting to the net has never been a problem for Vanek, whose power-play goal in Game 1 came from crashing the crease. But he hasn't always found it easy to score in the playoffs and has struggled with a minus-16 rating in six previous appearances with the Sabres, Canadiens and Wild.
Vanek didn't know how he would fit in with Columbus, though the reviews from coach John Tortorella are positive — and honest. Vanek's propensity for defensive miscues and mistakes with the puck, and his sometimes frustrating inconsistencies, have given Tortorella and others grey hairs.
"I think he really is thriving and is excited about the role he has, that he was and we were in a playoff hunt and now he's in the playoffs," Tortorella said. "I can see why he gives coaches nightmares in some of the things he does. I get that. But I think sometimes you need to ignore some of that and allow him to play and not get in his way. I think he's been terrific."
Several times leading up to the start of the playoffs and even after his goal, Vanek was asked about making an important contribution in the playoffs. Each time he changed the subject to the need for someone, anyone, on the team to have success.
"You can tell how excited everyone is," Vanek said. "It doesn't matter if you score or not."
Scoring or not, making a long run a reality would be Vanek's real redemption.