You try to avoid superlatives and hedge your emotions. You try not to overreact and say things you will regret. You try—tough as it may be—to be rational. Eventually, the evidence becomes overwhelming and you just say it: Thomas Vanek is the best player in hockey.
Thursday night in Boston, Vanek had the kind of game that makes you overreact in every possible way. The goals, the assists and the results scream for exaggeration. Vanek’s first five-point night of the season was eye-opening. His second was season-altering.
I recorded an emergency podcast just minutes after the game because I wanted to capture the excitement the 7-4 win provided. This was a game truly worth talking about. Watching Atlas take over was better than any entertainment a fight night in Boston could provide.
It was everything Vanek can give you as a hockey player. His first goal was a slap shot on a 2-on-1. His second was a perfect deflection through his legs, a remarkable example of his understanding of physics. The Defenseman makes this point better than I do, but right now Vanek’s understanding of the universe—and the game of hockey—is at an all-time high.
He made a remarkable pass to Tyler Ennis, falling to the ice while he whipped it across to the open side of the net to tie the game at three. Vanek turned a crosscheck in front into a tie game, and he was just getting started.
Then there’s the moment Vanek won the game for the Sabres, taking a puck in the neutral zone and getting a bit creative. He throws the puck off the wall around Johnny Boychuk, flies past the Bruins defender and threads a perfect pass to Cody Hodgson, who scores the game-winner.
Vanek’s best play was still to come, but this moment was more important than the lead it gave the Sabres. Vanek and Boychuk have history, and Atlas wrote the latest chapter on Thursday night. Boychuk injured Vanek in the playoffs and crunched him last season. This time Vanek was the aggressor, a titan asserting dominance over a mere mortal.
The last goal is something else entirely. Just watch it. Then watch it again and again. This is Vanek at his best. No panic in the defensive zone. No chance for Boston to tie this game. There was only waiting, the pause before the burst of offensive brilliance.
A long rebound off Miller is his chance. Pominville sees the breakout coming and takes off, but this is Vanek’s night. Atlas will score three tonight. Pominville can have the empty netter that follows.
The pass off the wall leaves another Bruin in his wake. He anticipates a defender’s pass and makes it his own. Racing into the zone he looks up. The wheels start to turn at high speed.
This is Vanek toying with physics. Exploring the limits of time and space, bending bodies and blades and ice to his will. There are obstacles and variables but one absolute truth: the puck is going in the net.
Sliding on his stomach, Dennis Seidenberg has an excellent view of the show. Pominville, leaning on his stick, has a better one. Vanek pulls the puck into the crease and does the magic trick the truly great ones can manage. Tukka Rask lunges at the shadow of greatness, and the red light turns on.
Thomas Vanek is in a special place right now, a place where the Atlas nickname really rings true. This is the stuff of legends we’re seeing, a single player carrying an entire hockey team on his back.
Vanek is forcing the Sabres to win hockey games. With a terrible defense and no secondary scoring to speak of, Atlas is keeping “Hockey Heaven” from crashing into Earth and killing us all. It’s unlikely he can do this forever. Hopefully the team can collectively pull itself together while Vanek carries the load. Still, it sure has been fun watching Vanek this year.
It’s easy to win hockey games when you have a titan on the wing.