Thomas Vanek learned early in his career how tough it is to win in the playoffs.
When Vanek and the Buffalo Sabres beat the Philadelphia Flyers in six games in 2006 to advance, the rookie winger looked across the locker room at 37-year-old Teppo Numminen, who was on the verge of tears. Numminen had never made it out of the first round in his previous 16 NHL seasons and was overjoyed.
“It hit me right there and then, 'Man this is hard,' ” Vanek said.
Vanek is now on the other side. In the playoffs for the seventh time, he is the Columbus Blue Jackets' oldest player at 34. Postseason struggles and inconsistencies have followed Vanek his entire career. Based on his play down the stretch and in Game 1 against Washington, he looks poised for some playoff redemption.
“A very consistent scorer throughout his year and has a lot to prove and wants to win the Stanley Cup,” Columbus general manager Jarmo Kekalainen said Friday. “That's why he's excited to be here. He wants to prove people wrong, if they think that he can't do it in the playoffs. He wants to show that he can, and he had a good start.”
Vanek had a goal and an assist to help the Blue Jackets take a 1-0 series lead on the Capitals, and young teammate Artemi Panarin scored the game-winner to finish with three points – two more than he had in Chicago's first-round sweep at the hands of the Predators a year ago. Kekalainen pointed out Panarin was a point-a-game player for the Blackhawks in the playoffs two years ago, so hold up on the reputation rehab there.
Getting to the net has never been a problem for Vanek, whose power-play goal in Game 1 came from crashing the crease. But he hasn't always found it easy to score in the playoffs and has struggled with a minus-16 rating in six previous appearances with the Sabres, Canadiens and Wild.
Vanek didn't know how he would fit in with Columbus, though the reviews from coach John Tortorella are positive – and honest. Vanek's propensity for defensive miscues and mistakes with the puck, and his sometimes frustrating inconsistencies, have given Tortorella and others grey hairs.
“I think he really is thriving and is excited about the role he has, that he was and we were in a playoff hunt and now he's in the playoffs,” Tortorella said. “I can see why he gives coaches nightmares in some of the things he does. I get that. But I think sometimes you need to ignore some of that and allow him to play and not get in his way. I think he's been terrific.”
Several times leading up to the playoffs and even after his goal, Vanek was asked about making an important contribution. Each time he changed the subject to the need for someone, anyone, on the team to have success.
“You can tell how excited everyone is,” Vanek said. “It doesn't matter if you score or not.”