The bucket may say so, but Thomas Vanek wasn’t the best player on the ice tonight.
Sure you could make a case for him, but there were plenty of other guys who played just as well. Drew Stafford made the best move of the night. Patrick Kaleta drew four penalties and ran all over the Leafs. Tim Connolly continued to play phenomenal hockey, and Ryan Miller hasn’t allowed a goal in over two games. We know who the three stars would be when it was all over, but here’s a better question: when you have so many guys playing like that, how do you beat this team?
Tonight the Buffalo Sabres ran the Toronto Maple Leafs right out of the building. In fact, they ran all the Maple Leafs fans out of the building, too. There were no “Go Leafs Go” chants, no cheers for Leafs goals, and no sarcastic cries of “Go Bills.” There was nothing to cheer about if you’re a Leafs fan, and a 5-0 final makes for a tough trip back across the border.
Let’s face it, this Stafford/Connolly/Vanek line is something else. After some great work for Connolly’s goal, it was obvious they were ready to roll and roll they did. Toronto was absolutely terrified of this line all night, and rightly so. All three are playing great hockey, and a lot of the penalties called tonight were simply out of fear that this line would beat them. It didn’t help.
I mean, can you really stop that much talent? Three forwards working the boards hard, digging out pucks and getting into open ice to make things happen. All three have a knack for getting into position to score, and they can dangle with the best of them. Stafford showed that tonight with a beautiful goal, and we all know what Atlas and Timmy can do with some space. If not for the mixed medley of rookies on the back end you could make a case for Stafford/Connolly/Vanek being the best line in hockey right now.
Despite the lede, it really is nice to see Atlas get things going again. Vanek had six shots on the night, and he really could have had five goals if he gets a few bounces. It’s pretty amazing that his last four hat tricks were all naturals, but I think that speaks for just how easy it is for him to take over a game. He wasn’t fantastic tonight, but his sure line was. It’s the kind of game we need from them when the rest of the team struggles, and that’s what we saw tonight.
What I loved to see is Vanek’s second goal: the “f$%k you!’ slap shot. When things are going well for Thomas he doesn’t even bother celebrating, but what a phenomenal play he made on that goal. His first breakaway move was decent, but this time around he froze the goaltender and ripped it into the top corner. That’s the confidence we want Vanek to play with every night, and perhaps that extra edge has been missing recently. I still find it very hard to criticize Vanek’s game this season, but it was great to see him get that extra edge back.
While the Sabres impressed, Toronto just didn’t show up at all. Sixteen shots isn’t going to cut it, and they looked flat all night. If you needed an indication that Toronto isn’t ready to make a playoff push, this was the game. They hung Justin Pogge out to dry on multiple occasions, and their penalty kill was terrible. Undisciplined, sloppy hockey killed Toronto tonight, and the fans who made the trip down the QEW to watch didn’t make a peep all night.
The best part about this game is that you know Montreal was watching. The Habs’ play Buffalo and Toronto back to back this weekend, so they have to be scouting tonight’s game. The Sabres absolutely blew the Leafs away, sending a message to both teams that they are the real deal. This team is making the playoffs, and looks more than capable of making a climb in the standings. Montreal sits all the way up in fourth place, but that’s only five points away and there’s a ton of hockey left to play.
After such a dominating performance tonight, you can’t help but look up.