Monday, November 14, 2011
Sabres Learn An Old Lesson
So the Buffalo Sabres are getting it from all corners of the hockey world for failing to act on Milan Lucic’s hit that knocked out their franchise player and number one goalie Ryan Miller on Saturday. Pundits are calling the Sabres “soft”, “gutless” and a few other things that aren’t printable in your average family newspaper.
Sound familiar Sens fans?
It should, because Ottawa had a reputation for a long time of being a team that failed to protect its star players from predatory hits and cheapshots (and oh there were many over the years). That changed a little when Zdeno Chara and Brian McGrattan provided some muscle in the mid-2000’s but after a few incidents with Daniel Alfredsson in recent years (such as the Mark Bell hit and the Wojtek Wolski elbow) that were not fully addressed on the ice, either at the time or in subsequent matches, the Senators are not exactly a shining example of frontier justice anymore either. But more on that in a moment.
Miller, who is now out with a concussion, fired the first “gutless” shot at Milan Lucic himself, saying “He has 50 pounds on me and he runs me like that?... That was gutless.” Lucic, who was given a few love-taps by the Sabres on the ice immediately after the hit, fired back with “We wouldn’t accept anything like that. We would have [taken] care of business. But we’re a different team than they are.”
The reason Lucic can say that with complete confidence? He knows the Sabres won’t do anything about it. Who says intimidation doesn’t work in hockey? Boston won the game 6-2.
Perhaps the Sabres were counting on the referees to take care of them but Lucic only got a two-minute penalty for charging and the Sabres didn’t do anything with the power-play, as can often happen when a team is demoralized like that.
You can perhaps forgive the Sabres for thinking the refs would come to their rescue, just like some teams who don’t employ tough guys believe that the league will dole out the proper punishment to players taking cheap shots at their stars. But even in this era of heightened sensitivity and super-suspensions, the league is still powerless to act if they deem the hit to be a legal one.
That’s exactly what happened to the Ottawa Senators when Brendan Shanahan decided that the New York Rangers Wojtek Wolski was “bracing himself” instead of intentionally elbowing Ottawa’s own franchise player in the chops and concussing him for five games (of which they lost 4 in a row).
So right there you can quickly see a grey area where old school “vigilante justice” may still have a role in the NHL. If your star player is lying on the ice and the league sees nothing wrong with it, what are you supposed to do? Just sit back and take it?
Of course not. That’s a loser mentality. Even if your star player gets hit cleanly, it’s important for his teammates to let the other team know that’s still unacceptable. That doesn’t make sense to a lot of fans who see everybody as fair game as long as it’s within the rules but hockey players certainly don’t think like that. The proof is out there on the ice. A lot of people complain about the fights that happen after clean hits, and in a way it has gotten a little ridiculous. In the 80’s for instance, fights always happened if a star player got hit cleanly but was usually let go when a third or fourth line player got lit up at centre ice (give or take a few bench clearing brawls between the Canadiens and the Nordiques of course).
Now even those hits are ending up in fights a lot of times, but behind it all is a reasonable motivation. If teams let every clean hit go without fighting back, the league would be littered with star players (and third liners) on the sidelines. Those fights, or the threat of them, make some players think twice before really laying the body on someone (although some players just aren’t wired that way, like Patrick Kaleta). It acts as a deterrent and keeps the game from turning into a roller derby every night.
And that’s just the clean hits. If you let the dirty ones go unpunished, what does that say for your team? To count on the league to play enforcer is plain folly. Even if the guy who hit your star gets suspended, it seems like little solace in the end. Players don’t want the league to do their dirty work. They’d much rather take care of it themselves in the traditional way that hockey has always allowed, even after the instigator penalty was instituted (although to a lesser degree).
So why didn’t the Sabres respond to Ryan Miller getting knocked out of the game? Beats me. They’ll get a chance to do that later in the season but it seems like it’s already too late. They’ve been labeled and teams won’t have much fear going into that rink and maybe giving Thomas Vanek that extra shot that they know will go unpunished. On the other hand, maybe this incident serves to wake up the Sabres and they come together as a team. It can work both ways.
And why did the Senators seem to shy away from getting tough on the Rangers just weeks after Alfredsson was knocked out of commission? Maybe it had something to do with Wolski being out of the lineup for surgery but that shouldn’t have had any bearing on the situation. Brad Richards had a fairly comfortable game, as did Marian Gaborik. Zenon Konopka and Jared Cowen stepped up and took on the Rangers but it still felt like a missed opportunity to make a stand as a team. The Senators fell apart shortly after that and erased their great October with a brutal start to November with Alfie on the shelf.
In essence, it’s not the fighting that’s important, it’s the idea of coming together and making a statement to the league. They could have done that without any fights at all. All they had to do was make life miserable for the Rangers on the boards and within the rules. Winning that game on their own turf would have been enough. That didn’t happen either.
To be fair to the Senators, they have a lot of young guys trying to stay in the league. Nobody wants to be the guy who takes a stupid penalty and puts his team down a man. Nobody wants to get hammered by Shanahan. The league seems to be in a flux right now and a lot of players don’t know how to act.
But at some point for both the Sabres and the Senators, you have to come together as a team and let it be known that if you mess with one, you have to face the rest. That’s a cliché as old as hockey itself, but it’s one lesson that seems to get taught year after year after year.