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Canadian Press
11/23/2006 1:47:33 PM

If Thomas Vanek seems to be playing like a man possessed, it's probably because the memories of last spring's playoffs are still fresh in his mind.

The 22-year-old Austrian winger has a look of disgust on his face when it's even brought up. Despite a 25-goal rookie campaign in 81 regular-season games, he was a healthy scratch for a big portion of last season's playoff run by the Buffalo Sabres, and it stung.

"It was hard, obviously," says Vanek, Buffalo's first pick, fifth overall, in the 2003 NHL entry draft. "You play all the regular-season games and you feel like you helped the team get there. It was obviously disappointing but it's in the past now, I can't change that now.

"This is a new year and I'm hopefully going to prove them wrong this year come the playoffs."

Head coach Lindy Ruff, last season's recipient of the Jack Adams Award as NHL coach of the year, says Vanek's play had dipped come playoff time so he doesn't regret sitting him.

"The only thinking was that we felt we had other guys that were playing better," said Ruff. "I said it at the time, I don't find it uncommon that a young guy may struggle in the playoffs and get caught up in the pace of the game. And I think overall conditioning, with the amount of time he had played probably hurt him at that point. He wasn't able to catch up to the other guys."

When asked how the decision was explained to him last spring, Vanek had a simpler answer.

"I don't know, everyone was healthy and I was just kind of the odd man out," said Vanek.

That was Vanek's way of saying, "Let's stop talking about this." Fair enough. After all, the best part of last spring's disappointment is that he's come back this fall with a vengeance. He tops the NHL-leading Sabres with 15 goals in 22 games and is second on the team with 28 points.

"The biggest difference is just a year experience," explains Vanek. "I learned a lot of things in my rookie year and it carried into this year."

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