The hockey world will be watching to see if the Sabres will finally show some kind of response as Milan Lucic and the Bruins visit the HSBC Arena for the first time since Lucic crushed Sabres netminder Ryan Miller at the Garden back on Nov. 12.
I'm not expecting much.
The Sabres didn't even have the guts to give Lucic a dirty look when he smashed Miller. That would have required making eye contact. The Sabres wanted nothing to do with contact of any kind with the burly winger that night. They've had trouble looking at themselves in the mirror ever sense.
But now all eyes are on them for the rematch and a chance for possible redemption. Unfortunately for them, those eyes include the peepers of Brendan Shanahan, and the NHL dean of discipline has let both teams know that he doesn't want to see the exact kind of bloodbath that the paying customers hope to witness.
The Sabres aren't equipped for that kind of game against the Bruins anyway. Boston has arguably the toughest all-around lineup in the league. Beyond Lucic, the Bruins have a respected enforcer in Shawn Thornton, the intimidating presence of 6-foot-9 behemoth Zdeno Chara on the blue line, scrappy center Gregory Campbell, hard-nosed defenseman Adam McQuaid, power forward Nathan Horton and team guys like Andrew Ference always willing to step up in defense of a teammate.
The Sabres can counter with a righteous sense of indignation and little else. Their designated tough guy Cody McCormick has missed the last three games with an upper-body injury and isn't expected to play, and he had two and half periods to go after Lucic last game and didn't anyway. Paul Gaustad has the size at 6-foot-5, 212 pounds, but he was on the ice when Lucic leveled Miller and did nothing. Robyn Regehr could be a candidate at 6-foot-3, 225 pounds, but he's not a fighter by trade. Patrick Kaleta is an agitator more likely to deliver a cheap shot than drop the gloves with anyone above his weight class, and even he is likely to tone down his usual antics with how severely outgunned the Sabres are and how tightly the officials will be calling this one.
No one has been brought up from their AHL affiliate in Rochester to add muscle to the lineup, not that there was a lot down there to choose from. General manager Darcy Regier hasn't built his club that way, and coach Lindy Ruff has long eschewed dressing a true heavyweight. Maybe he remembers all too well trying to tangle with one of Boston's previous power forwards, when Cam Neely pounded him in the 1988 playoffs. Instead, the only addition to the Buffalo lineup will be Jochen Hecht, returning after missing the first 20 games of the season with a concussion. Yikes.
So no, Rob Ray isn't walking through that door. Nor is Brad May, Gord Donnelly, Matthew Barnaby, Kevin Maguire, Mike Hartman, Jim Schoenfeld or any of the others on the long list of former Sabres tough guys who once made Buffalo an intimidating place to play. But this isn't that type of Sabres team. If Nov. 12 didn't hammer that home enough, then Wednesday night should.
Gaustad already laid the groundwork to lower expectations earlier this week, falling back on what has become the standard crutch in the new NHL of the points being more important than pride. Of course, a team could try to win the game AND exact a little payback, but that's far too much to expect these days.
"I don't know what the fans are wanting," Gaustad told Buffalo reporters. "We want to get a win. I think that's what we have to focus on: Playing our game, execute our system and try to win. … We have to address it as taking care our business of executing the game. We're trying to win the two points. You have to focus on our systems and execute what they'll do with their systems."
Gaustad doesn't know what the fans want? Really? They want a team that can stand up for itself. A team that will defend each other. A team that won't make them embarrassed to wear their logo in public.
Bruins fans can relate. They went through the same situation two years ago when Matt Cooke laid out Marc Savard with a brutal cheap shot and no one on the Bruins did anything in response. No one on the ice at the time made Cooke pay. No one went after him when Cooke played another shift in the closing minutes. Thornton finally dropped him in a quick bout early in the rematch in Boston a couple weeks later, but the rest of the Bruins failed to show up in any other way that night in a humiliating 3-0 loss.
It was no surprise that Bruins team went on to commit one of the most epic chokes in NHL history in the playoffs that spring. That Bruins team didn't have the heart, commitment and camaraderie needed to win when it mattered most. But they learned from it, and the squad that hoisted the Cup a year later bore little resemblance to the club that embarrassed the spoked-B the previous March.
Will the Sabres learn their lesson quicker and show some mettle on Wednesday? Lucic expects something. He said he fully anticipates a challenge being issued. And you can count of Lucic to accept that challenge if it comes. But other than the possibility of a brief, obligatory bout early in the game, don't expect a lot of fireworks in this one.
It would have been fun to see an old-school grudge match, but the league doesn't want that. Not even if it might be exactly what the Sabres need to do. And not even though it's exactly what the paying customers are tuning in hoping to see.
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