Give me the blood, Lord, and let me get away! – Daniel Plainview, There Will be Blood.
No matter how much the Sabres players and fans have tried to ignore it and focus on the last three games, October 16th @ Chicago has been circled on the calendar ever since Jason Pominville left the ice on a stretcher 14 minutes into the first period. The NHL has spoken by suspending the offending player for two games. Whether you disagree, concur or think the punishment was excessive, the league is finished with the matter. The players however, are not.
Tonight, the players are afforded the opportunity to settle the matter on the rink. When you examine the development of the sport of hockey it seems the right and gentlemanly way to settle the score. Physical play and fighting specifically, developed inside the sport as a self-policing mechanism. For better or worse, fighting has been an important part of hockey and against all odds has survived into the year 2010. The Blackhawks have slapped the Sabres in the face and tonight is their chance to rebut; to achieve satisfaction!
Will this Sabres team respond? I’m sure Chicago’s team considers the matter closed, having lost two man games from a quality defenseman. Their side would be quite satisfied to go through tonight’s game with only the occasional 2 minute penalty. It will be up to the Sabres players, specifically players like Patrick Kaleta, Cody McCormick, Paul Gaustad, Steve Montador, Craig Rivet, and Mike Grier to set the tone and let Chicago know that the matter is far from settled. Recent history has shown that the Sabres are not a team that takes an eye for an eye; a fact that many fans point to as helping to form a reputation that the Sabres are a team that can be pushed around. So far Patrick Kaleta has been the only Sabre to speak up on the matter saying, ‘… we'll make a point that you can't be taking hits like that against one of our leaders and one of the better players on our team." I have no problem with most of the players keeping quiet on the matter as long as they do their talking on the rink Saturday night.
What do we want as fans? How much physical play will be enough tonight? Will a few hard checks against Hjalmarsson, Toews, Sharp, Kane & Co. be enough to quench our thirst for revenge? Do we want to see a fight?, 2 fights?, 3, 4, full line brawl? Will we only be happy if we injure one of THEIR players? How much do we need? The answer I come to is that it’s not a number of hits or fights; it’s the achievement of a statement. That statement being, The Buffalo Sabres are not a team that can be pushed around.
One of the biggest complaints Buffalo fans have of their team is the perceived lack of toughness. Whether right or wrong, the city of Buffalo wants a team that mirrors its own hard-working blue collar roots. When Ted Nolan coached the Sabres we had that team. They didn’t always win but they never lacked for toughness. Matthew Barnaby, Bob Boughner, Vaclav Varada, Brad May, Wayne Primeau, Jay McKee and of course Rob Ray set the physical tone. The Sabres were a team that you didn’t mess with and we loved them for it. Their captain Mike Peca was a big hitter; even one of their goalies, Steve Shields was known to get into the occasional scrap. Finesse players like Pat Lafontaine, Alex Mogilny, Derek Plante and Donald Audette were afforded the luxury to operate without fear of taking hits like the one laid on Jason Pominville a few days ago. One of the main reasons they were safe from questionable hits was the built in police force made up of the names mentioned above. Opposing players had to think about the beating they’d be taking from Ray or May before going after the Sabres smaller players.
What purpose does retribution serve to the team? This is by far the more important question. As fans we ultimately want the team to win. Some of us enjoy violence, but starting a war on the ice isn’t going to bring home The Cup. So if we really care about our team winning, then shouldn’t any action taken tonight be to that end? What would be the point of starting fights and playing physical if it served no purpose towards the ultimate goal of winning? Rob Ray was on with Mike Schopp & The Bulldog yesterday and he stressed the potential positive effect of a good physical altercation in bringing the team together. Paraphrasing Ray, ‘Nothing brings the team together like a good brou-ha-ha.’ During intermission of yesterday’s 40th anniversary game former Sabre, Mike Robitaille reminisced about the game vs. the Bruins in the 70’s in which Jim Schoenfeld started an infamous brawl that broke through the zamboni door. Robitaille said, ‘After that we were a team and nobody messed with us…’
I’m willing to admit at this point that the Hjalmarsson hit was most likely not intentional. He’s not Claude Lemieux and he doesn’t need to be brutally beaten in some act of cold blooded revenge. (Although I’m not entirely against that) Hjalmarsson and the Blackhawks are merely actors in a test that has been assigned to this Sabres team. Tonight’s game is not about Buffalo vs. Chicago. This is the Sabres vs. their reputation. It’s about proving to us and more importantly, themselves that they have each other’s backs. Will the Sabres pass tonight’s test? Will There Be Blood?