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Thursday, February 5, 2009
Vanek having an impact on teammates


Thomas Vanek is proving that he is worth every last penny that the Buffalo Sabres paid two summers ago to keep him in town. Despite a long cross-country flight following a game in Anaheim, Vanek and the Sabres didn't look like they were travel weary on Wednesday. The Austrian sniper picked up a natural hat trick in a 5-0 win over the Toronto Maple Leafs.

Vanek remained humble after what was one of his better games this season. "We knew we were maybe physically not in top shape, but I thought we skated well," he said to reporters after the game. "We played smart and got the early lead, and that really helped us."

The fact that Vanek is producing at such a high level is all well and good, but what value can fantasy owners gain from a player that is owned in every ESPN league? The good news is that his hot play has been trickling down to his linemates as well. Tim Connolly and Drew Stafford each had a goal and an assist on the night as they ride shotgun for one of the most exciting players currently in the NHL.

To their credit, Connolly and Stafford are no slouches in their own right. Connolly, although fragile, is a talented offensive centre and was picked No. 5 overall in his draft year. He has been healthy for only 18 games this season, but has been productive when on the ice, netting 18 points. Stafford, a first-round choice as well, is beginning to show the flashes of offensive ability that scouts knew he had. He has 25 points in his past 27 games.

His goal, which gave the Sabres a 2-0 lead, was of the eyebrow-raising variety. After a drop pass from Clarke MacArthur at the blue line, Stafford faked a move to the inside then,without breaking stride, backhanded the puck through his legs to get around defenseman Mike Van Ryn. Stafford then drove to the net and shot the puck past Leafs' rookie goalie Justin Pogge.

"I got lucky. If I screwed that up, I probably would've heard about it from Lindy [Ruff]," Stafford told reporters about the move.

Ruff is a bright coach and it only makes sense that he decided to line up three of his best offensive players on the same line. No doubt, he is pleased with the results. Connolly is owned in 28 percent of ESPN leagues while Stafford's ownership numbers sit closer to 68 percent. Both would be excellent additions to any team.

Ice Chips

Meanwhile, the Pogge experiment is not going well in Toronto. The young blue-chip prospect was called up from the NHL to play for the Leafs in this game and looked like a lamb led to the slaughter. When reporters asked him after the game about his first taste of playing in the NHL, he responded, "I'm not enjoying it too much." In his past two starts, the Leafs have looked listless in front of him providing little or no help. ... A bout of the flu is making its way through Philadelphia and it has hit the Flyers hard. Mike Richards, Braydon Coburn and Scottie Upshall were each sidelined with viruses. ... The hot ride continues for David Krejci, and fantasy owners are taking notice. He scored another goal on Wednesday night -- good for his 55th point on the season -- and is now owned in 95 percent of ESPN leagues. Not bad for someone who went undrafted to start the season. ... Feel free to get Henrik Zetterberg in your active lineup again. The Detroit superstar was back on the ice after missing three games with lower-back spasms. Zetterberg looked comfortable and was able to start earning that $73 million extension. He had a goal in his return. ... Make that four goals in two nights for Marian Hossa. For the second game in a row, Hossa scored twice in Detroit's win over Phoenix. He now has seven goals in his past seven games. ... Maybe there was some championship residue in the air, but the Pittsburgh Penguins looked like a Stanley Cup team again with Ben Roethlisberger watching from Mario Lemieux's private box. Evgeni Malkin led the way, as the Penguins pushed past Tampa for a 4-3 overtime win. "You always look back at seasons, and turning points, and hopefully this is one for us," captain Sidney Crosby said. "It was a big character builder for everyone." That's exactly what you want to hear if you have a couple of Penguins in your lineup. If not, get them active, because the Pens are set to go on a run. ... Mike McKenna made his first NHL start in place of Mike Smith, who has been placed on the team's injury report. Ignore McKenna, who as recently as last season was in the ECHL. ... Niklas Backstrom stopped all 34 shots he faced on Wednesday night, as he picked up his sixth shutout of the season in a 3-0 win over the Ducks. ... Carolina captain Rod Brind'Amour will not play on Thursday night. The team sent him home early during their West Coast swing so that he can rest what the team is calling a "nagging lower-body injury."

John Pereira is a fantasy hockey analyst for ESPN.com.