Thomas Vanek seems to be trying to singlehandedly carry the Buffalo Sabres to the playoffs.
Coming off his second career hat trick, Vanek hopes to extend an impressive offensive stretch as the Sabres (29-23-8) visit the Toronto Maple Leafs on Thursday.
Vanek helped the Sabres snap a two-game losing streak Wednesday, scoring three goals in a 4:46 span - the last 2:25 into overtime - in a 4-3 victory over the Tampa Bay Lightning.
Buffalo is 9-2-2 since Jan. 24, but had been outscored 9-2 in its previous two games. Vanek, who scored both goals in those losses, helped the Sabres rally from a 3-1 deficit. He scored twice during 36-second stretch late in the third period to help Buffalo avoid an embarrassing loss to the worst team in the Eastern Conference.
"We need points and we got two points, that's the most important part," said Vanek, whose other hat trick came Feb. 12 against Ottawa. "It's good to stop the losing streak at two and hopefully putting a streak the other way."
Vanek, who has a team-leading 25 goals, has scored five in the last three games and 12 in the last 11, including four game winners. He had just 13 goals in the first 49 games.
"It feels great," said Vanek, who has one goal in four games versus Toronto this season and nine in 19 games for his career. "It's finally coming and hopefully I can stay on my game from here on out."
Coach Lindy Ruff said Buffalo needs Vanek to maintain his form as the Sabres try to stay in the Eastern Conference playoff mix. They are 14-6-1 when Vanek scores and 19-9-2 when he records at least one point.
"We need him," Ruff told the Sabres' official Web site. "We need him to play, we need him to score, we need him to be the guy that makes the difference in games."
After beating the Eastern Conference's last-place team, Buffalo is looking take advantage of a game against the team in second-to-last place.
Toronto (25-27-9), though, has won two straight over playoff contenders, most recently a 3-1 victory over the Columbus Blue Jackets on Tuesday. Carlo Colaiacovo, Nik Antropov and Chad Kilger each scored for the Maple Leafs, while Vesa Toskala recorded 26 saves.
"I think it was a pretty solid game from us," said Toskala, who has won his last two starts. "Not many turnovers, everybody was helping each other out there. Pretty good game."
Antropov, who is second for the Maple Leafs with 21 goals, has three goals in the last five games. The center has two goals and two assists in four games against the Sabres this season. Toronto is 2-1-1 in those games, including a 4-2 win in the only game played at the Air Canada Centre.
The Maple Leafs haven't won three straight since Jan. 15-19.