Lack of production from Thomas Vanek is one reason why the Buffalo Sabres have struggled much of this season. His play, however, has picked up considerably of late and the playoffs seem more likely now for one of the league's hottest teams.
Vanek and the Sabres hope to continue their climb up the Eastern Conference standings as they meet the Toronto Maple Leafs on Wednesday night at HSBC Arena.
Vanek signed a $50 million, seven-year offersheet with Edmonton in the offseason, but the Sabres matched it, making the high-scoring forward one of the league's richest players. With the huge contract came bigger expectations for Vanek, who had 43 goals and 84 points last season, his second in the NHL.
The contract seemed like a burden most of this season for Vanek, who didn't have playmaking centers Chris Drury and Daniel Briere available after both left as free agents. Without those two, Vanek faced more attention from opposing teams and managed only 13 goals in his first 49 games.
The Austrian native, though, appears to be back in form, scoring seven goals in his last seven games, including his first NHL hat trick in Buffalo's 5-1 victory at Eastern Conference-leading Ottawa on Tuesday.
"It's great. I'm really happy for him," Sabres goaltender Ryan Miller said. "Earlier in the year, he was searching for it and he's had a lot of pressure thrown on his plate. I think as the team has settled down, he's settled down, too, and I think he feels that he can go out there and score some goals now."
Clarke MacArthur and Jason Pominville each had a goal and an assist for the Sabres (27-21-8), who have gone 7-0-2 in their last nine games to move into eighth place in the East, one point ahead of Boston.
Miller and Pominville have also played key roles in Buffalo's resurgence.
Miller, who turned aside 25 shots Tuesday, is 7-0-1 with a 1.70 goals-against average and one shutout in his last nine starts. Pominville, meanwhile, has five goals and eight assists during a career high-tying eight-game point streak.
The Maple Leafs (23-25-9) are seven points out of the playoff race, but three wins in four games have led to better feelings. Nik Antropov scored 62 seconds into overtime Saturday, lifting Toronto to a 3-2 victory over league-leading Detroit.
The Leafs' last three wins have come against some of the league's better clubs - Ottawa, Montreal and Detroit. Toronto coach Paul Maurice, though, wouldn't say if the surge also signaled the start of a playoff run.
"Take it for what it is, fellas," Maurice said. "Some of you will really like the win and some of you will think that it hurts our draft pick. Do with it what you want. We're just taking the points and playing again Wednesday."
Antropov, second on the team with 42 points, returned to the lineup following a three-game suspension for tossing his stick in the direction of the referees after an overtime loss at Carolina on Jan. 31. Forward Alex Steen also came back after missing five games with a separated shoulder.
Left wing Alexei Ponikarovsky could return Wednesday following a seven-game absence due to a dislocated shoulder.
The Maple Leafs are 3-0-1 in their last four meetings with the Sabres, including 2-0-1 this season. Andrew Raycroft stopped 30 shots in a 3-0 victory at Buffalo on Nov. 9 in Toronto's last visit to HSBC Arena.