Christmas came a week or two early for the Buffalo Sabres and Thomas Vanek on December 8th, 2008 in Pittsburgh. The Sabres were paying a visit to the Penguins inside Mellon Arena, a stadium where Buffalo had not won in three trips to.
For the first half of the game, it seemed that the streak would extend to four losses in a row at Mellon. Ruslan Fedotenko opened the scoring nearly midway through the first period, and would score again for the second time in the game with less than five minutes remaining in the period.
In between Fedotenko’s tallies came an unassisted goal by Derek Roy, which allowed the Sabres to go into the first intermission down only 2-1.
That reasonable deficit didn’t last long. The Sabres put themselves at serious risk by taking a multitude of penalties over the course of the game (eight in all), the most glaring coming early in the second period where they on the wrong end of a 5-on-3. Kris Letang made sure that the Penguins took advantage, and scored his first goal of the season to put Pittsburgh ahead 3-1.
The Sabres were resilient on this night, however, and demonstrated that yet again when Ales Kotalik scored just five minutes later. After killing off another pair of penalties, Buffalo was riding momentum, and evened the score 3-3 at 14:49 in the second. Daniel Paille camped close to the net and was just in the right spot to bat in a loose puck during a scrum that backup goalie Dany Sabourin couldn’t keep track of.
Buffalo made sure that the third period would begin differently than how the second did. Only six minutes in, Thomas Vanek scored by deflecting a pass from Jason Pominville and put Buffalo ahead on the scoreboard for the first time that night.
Beyond the score of the game, the goal was a big one for Vanek as it put him at 20 goals for the season at that point, which then led the entire NHL. For Vanek to score his 20th goal only 27 games into the season was a major step forward for the explosive Left-winger, who was experiencing a rebound year after a disappointing 2007-2008 campaign.
That goal would be the last time that either team found the back of the net that night, and the Sabres successfully completed a comeback win over the Penguins for the second time in two meetings. Only eleven days earlier in Buffalo, the Sabres overcame early deficits to defeat Pittsburgh also by a score of 4-3.
Perhaps the Sabres were feeling bitter in those November and December months as they approached the one-year anniversary of the Winter Classic at Ralph Wilson Stadium, where Pittsburgh won in a shootout, and channeled that energy to defeat their nearby rival in exciting fashion. Twice, no less.