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Vanek lost in defeat

By Tim Graham
Globe Correspondent / April 18, 2010

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BUFFALO — In the first game of their first-round playoff series, the Sabres shook off the Bruins’ best punch — a 24-shot second period — and authoritatively locked down a victory.

The Bruins delivered another haymaker yesterday in Game 2. This time, the Sabres crumbled.

The Sabres lost leading scorer Thomas Vanek to injury in the first period, blew a two-goal lead, and lost, 5-3, faltering for the first time all season when taking a lead into the third period.

Two-thirds of the way through the first period, with the Sabres ahead, 2-0, Bruins defenseman Johnny Boychuk hooked Vanek to the ice as he rushed toward the net. Boychuk then slid with him into the end boards. Vanek, his left leg raised, struggled to skate to the bench. He collapsed once he got there and was lugged to the dressing room.

Sabres coach Lindy Ruff was reticent in speaking about Vanek’s status. He said he didn’t know how long Vanek would be out and didn’t know whether the injury occurred on the hook or the collision, but said, “I would anticipate him going to Boston’’ for Game 3 tomorrow night.

“He’s a big part of this team,’’ Sabres defenseman Henrik Tallinder said. “He’s a big goal scorer, a big ox.

“It’s a big loss. He’s a big impact player if you want to admit it or not.’’

Vanek is the Sabres’ highest-paid player and rides the salary sidecar only to Bruins captain Zdeno Chara in the series. Vanek led the Sabres with 28 goals despite missing 11 games. He tied for the team lead with 10 power-play goals and six winners.

Typically streaky, he netted one goal in seven games before a groin injury sidelined him for six games in late March and early April. He returned for the final two regular-season games and scored five goals. He added another in Game 1 and picked up an assist on the Sabres’ first goal in Game 2.

“He was creating things offensively,’’ Sabres winger Jason Pominville said. “He was involved physically, involved defensively. He was on a roll. He was hot. It’s probably the best I’ve seen him play in a while.’’

Vanek’s play was boding well for the Sabres. Bruins forward Daniel Paille, a teammate of Vanek’s for six-plus seasons, has seen him dictate games and series.

“He’s definitely a difference-maker on that team,’’ Paille said, “and it showed the last two games.’’

Ruff admitted the Sabres “seemed to have lost a little bit of energy’’ and that “it seemed pretty quiet’’ as he juggled line combinations to make up for Vanek’s absence.

“Sometimes, when a key player goes down like that,’’ Ruff said, “there’s a little bit of a letdown.’’

If Vanek can’t play tomorrow, winger Drew Stafford is a possibility. He hasn’t been cleared to play since suffering a concussion April 10, but he has been practicing. He had 14 goals and 20 assists in 71 regular-season games.

In the 11 games the Sabres played without Vanek, they were 5-5 with a shootout loss. But they averaged 2.8 goals, matching their season average.

Still, the Sabres would be more prepared to cope with Vanek’s absence had they closed out yesterday’s game. The Northeast Division champs went into the third period with a 3-2 lead. They were 31-0 this season and 81-2-11 over the past three when ahead at the second intermission.

“It’s not good. It’s our barn,’’ Tallinder said. “We should be able to lock down the game.’’

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