BUFFALO -- It's not a universal reaction, but damn close, when hockey fans take a peek at the names chasing the NHL scoring title.
Right there at the top of the chart -- ahead of Sidney Crosby and Evgeni Malkin, Steven Stamkos, Patrick Kane and John Tavares -- is Thomas Vanek of the Buffalo Sabres.
And the typical reaction? Something like this...
"Thomas (expletive) Vanek leads the NHL in scoring? Really?"
The 29-year-old Sabres veteran has been dubbed one of the early-season surprises in the NHL, having racked up 12 goals and 13 assists in just 15 games. This from a guy who has averaged a point per game and has finished in the Top 30 scoring just once in his eight years in the NHL, after scoring 43 goals and adding 41 assists during the 2006-07 season.
But when pressed as to the secret of his success -- a change in diet, a new fitness regime, a magic potion discovered while playing in Austria during the lockout, perhaps? -- Vanek simply offers up a shrug.
"I'm trying to create chances for myself and my linemates," he explained. "Some nights they go in, some nights they don't. I don't think there's a secret to it. It's about going in there and creating.
"You've got to credit your linemates. With Pommer (Jason Pominville) I've had good chemistry and with Cody (Hodgson) we've found a centreman who can move the puck both ways (with forehand and backhand passes) and the puck has been going in. Lately, we've had some good chances, I've gotten some good chances and they're not going in. I've just got to stay the same: Don't get too high, don't get too low and play my game."
Vanek's story is an intriguing one. Born in Austria -- he is one of just three Austrians in the NHL, along with Michael Grabner of the New York Islanders and Andreas Nodl of the Carolina Hurricanes -- Vanek moved to the United States at age 14 to chase his pro-hockey dream. He played high school hockey, then played junior for the Sioux Falls Stampede before joining the University of Minnesota.
But, interestingly, it was during his return to Austria during the lockout -- he suited up for Graz in his hometown -- where Vanek said he rediscovered his scoring touch and his joy for the game.
"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 told the Buffalo News recently. "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."
On Tuesday Vanek also said another factor has helped him in his growth this season: a sense of perspective and maturity.
"Early on in my career I put so much pressure on myself to get right out of the gate with the right start and if it doesn't happen in the first three, four games you start to press," he said. "That's the main thing I've learned over the years: I still get frustrated when I miss a pass that I think I should make or a goal I think I should score. But I think I've toned down a little bit on that on perspective."
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