BUFFALO, N.Y. (AP) — If not for the NHL lockout, Thomas Vanek would have missed a rare opportunity to return home to play in his native Austria.
The time off and the brief but sweet homecoming last fall did wonders for the Buffalo Sabres' play-making forward. It was a European vacation Vanek credits for rekindling his passion for the game and helping him rediscover his scoring touch.
"Spending five weeks at home, I got to see how big the game had grown. I went back and every rink was sold out," Vanek said by phone after the Sabres practiced at Long Island on Friday, a day before they were to face the Islanders. "And it just kind of made me realize how fun this game could be and how many people are following it. I think that's the biggest lesson I got taught."
Vanek's newfound perspective has been on display through the first three weeks of the NHL season. He's off to the most prolific start of his eight-year career, and finds himself leading the league with 10 goals and 21 points.
As he often does, Vanek pays no attention to the numbers he puts up. A four-time 30-goal-scorer, he's also known for being streaky which leaves Vanek worried about when the next dry spell might surface.
"There's no way I can keep this pace up," said Vanek. "I know that. And I'm fine with that."
What's notably changed is his outlook.
"Hockey was always fun here in Buffalo from Day 1. But sometimes, when you're in the tough times, missing the playoffs, I think you kind of forget," he said. "And that's what made me realize over there that you've got to work hard, but at the same time enjoy it, because before you know it, your ride might be over."
The ride, for now, is showing no signs of slowing for Vanek, only the sixth Sabres player to reach 20 points through his first 10 games of a season.
Vanek has five multiple-point games already. He is coming off an outing in which he scored two third-period goals — including a game-tying tally with 2 seconds left — in rallying the Sabres to a 5-4 shootout victory over Montreal on Thursday.
The win snapped a three-game skid. Still, the Sabres have only won twice in nine games (2-6-1), and would do themselves a big favor to follow Vanek's lead.
"It's really about winning the next game already," coach Lindy Ruff said. "It's about putting this one behind us and focusing on getting better, getting on a run, because we've got some ground to make up."
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