Eleven days ago, Boston’s Milan Lucic delivered a bull-rushing charge of Buffalo Sabres goalie Ryan Miller, a devastating hit that resulted in a concussion, whiplash and an immediate need for retribution. The Sabres should’ve pounded Lucic when the hit occurred in the first period – yet they failed miserably. Ask Buffalo’s Paul Gaustad, the poster boy for a cowering effort who, afterward, pointed the finger toward his own face. Ask Buffalo GM Darcy Regier, who spoke to reporters and vowed his team will “deal with it differently in the future.”
Well, that “future” is today, as Boston visits Buffalo. A season-shifting opportunity is knocking upon the Sabres’ door, and it’s Lucic on the other side, pounding his Fred Flintstone-sized fist. The burning question: Is Lucic knocking as the grim reaper, someone who will kill Buffalo’s team unity? Or can the Sabres kick him to the curb like a pestering solicitor, and earn the defending Stanley Cup Champions’ respect as they battle atop the Northeast Division?
History in Buffalo sports says choose the former, because the city’s past is flooded with failures whenever opportunity knocked. Oh, there was the 1975 Stanley Cup Finals. The 1999 Cup Finals. The Buffalo Braves. Calvin Murphy. Those 2007 Ottawa Senators. Chris Neil. Wide right. Three more Super Bowl losses. Heck, even Buffalo native Patrick Kane failed: The cab door was an opportunity to escape free of ridicule and embarrassment, but instead, he chose to punch a driver over 20 cents.
But forget all that, none of it matters today. Opportunity is here for the 2011 Sabres, and it comes in the form of Lucic, a poor man’s Terry O’Reilly who certainly will be public enemy No. 1 inside First Niagara Center. His blatant charge1 toward Miller left the franchise netminder heavily angered, thus causing him to label Lucic as “gutless” and a “piece of (crap).”
It was a justified response. Credit Miller for speaking out.
Speaking louder volumes, however, was the inaction of his teammates, who wimped out.
STOP ACTING SCARED
Lucic is like Biff from Back to the Future. Nobody messes with him. He’s the bully on the block. Challenge him and you’ll get slammed. Ask Patrick Kaleta, whose nose likely wears a Lucic glove imprint. Ask Cody McCormick, who was tossed around like George McFly just eight months ago. Hello! Helllllllloooo!! Think, McFly, think.
If Lucic’s Buffalo-bullying ego increased from dominating toughies such as Kaleta and McCormick … then how inflated is it today? Think about it: If you plow a goalie in a recreational hockey league, you’re gonna get smacked. This is the NHL. The Men of All Men hockey league. And yet, Buffalo didn’t do anything when Lucic ran Miller. They should’ve gone crazy, like, Winnipeg Jets crazy. Touch our goalie? We’re coming for you. The bench is clearing.
“Lucic is a tough guy,” Miller told John Vogl of the Buffalo News in the days after the hit. “What are you going to do? Hack him? Spear him? Cheap-shot him?”
Figure it out, Ryan. Do something, at least!
Hey, we’re not saying to go Todd Bertuzzi2 style and pummel his face into the ice. We’re not saying to go Marty McSorley style and employ the tomahawk-temple tactic. But come on. Send a message, Buffalo. More specifically, send a message and redeem yourself, Paul Gaustad, because when Lucic ran Miller, you looked like Corporal Timothy E. Upham in Saving Private Ryan.
Gaustad was the toughest Sabre on the ice – 6-foot-5, 212 pounds. He was merely inches away from Lucic, yet he allowed Nathan Horton’s harmless cuddle to hold him back.
“I can do more,” Gaustad told Vogl. “I’m embarrassed that we didn’t respond the way we should have. It falls on myself. I look at myself first, and I wasn’t good enough.
“We didn’t push back. There’s no reason to be scared. We had to go after it, and we didn’t.”
They better go after it – and solve it.
Because in 2007, they didn’t go after it, nor solve it, and they paid dearly.
DON’T REPEAT THE PAST
You remember February of 2007, right? First-place Buffalo versus second-place Ottawa? The front end of a home-and-home series?
That’s when Ottawa’s Chris Neil blindsided Buffalo’s Chris Drury, leaving him dazed, bloodied and confused. Lindy Ruff responded and inserted tough guys Andrew Peters, Adam Mair and Patrick Kaleta for the ensuing faceoff, and mayhem unfolded to the delight of HSBC Arena.
Mair repeatedly cross checked Ottawa’s Jason Spezza.
Peters nearly decapitated Ottawa’s Dany Heatley.
And Ruff, the Sabres’ coach, nearly fought Senators coach Bryan Murray between the benches, as retired-enforcer-turned-
The charade was a brawl of epic proportions, a youtube sensation so exciting it makes you wonder: How did Rick Jeanneret survive?
Yet by the end of it Buffalo was the psychological loser, thanks to the efforts of an unlikely toughie, Ray Emery.
The Ottawa goalie manhandled his counterpart, Martin Biron, then fearlessly stood toe-to-toe with Peters, a bigger and badder player who wasn’t hindered by those bulky leg pads. Yet it didn’t matter to Emery, who wore an ear-to-ear grin as he thwarted Peters’ haymakers, a smile that read, ‘Nice try. You guys are soft.’
Two days later, the teams met again, and Neil took liberties with whomever he chose.
Three months later, Ottawa KO’d Buffalo in the conference finals.
Fast forward to today, and Lucic plays the role of Neil. He clearly doesn’t respect Buffalo, as evidenced by his exchange with a reporter following the Miller hit.
REPORTER: If the roles were reversed, and that would’ve happened to (Boston goalie)Timmy (Thomas), would there have been a stronger response from you guys?
“Definitely,” said a smiling Lucic. “We wouldn’t accept anything like that. We would’ve taken care of business, but … we’re a different team than they are.”
Are you gonna take that, Buffalo?
THE NHL NEEDS THIS
At any rate, this Buffalo-Boston hatred is great for hockey. Heck, donnybrooks are great for hockey.
And when is the last time we anticipated a rematch, believing a brawl would unfold? It doesn’t happen too often anymore, although it could with one major change.
Bring back the one-referee system3. Yes, I said it: Bring back the one-referee system.
Consider the ECHL, a one-referee-per-game league which features a host of fights, numerous yard-sale brawls and stick-throwing coaches. It’s no coincidence there are more blowups in the ECHL. One set of eyes cannot capture as many infractions as two, therefore there’s more tugging and grabbing, more missed penalties, more bickering, more anger, more fights.
And the NHL needs more fights, so bring it back4.
I know, I know. Anti-fighting advocates covet protection for players. And I’ll counter with this: The game of hockey is an extreme sport. Sticks are weapons that create wounds. Pucks fly at speeds faster than cars on a highway. And in today’s game, with bigger shoulder pads, sturdier skates and extreme training regimens, the players on the rink are equivalent to semi trucks cruising the Autobahn.
In other words, danger always lurks – not in the sole instance when grown men drop their gloves.
But that’s a debate for another time.
In the meantime, we’ll get back to Buffalo-Boston hatred, so thank Brendan Shanahan5 for failing to suspend Lucic. What if he sat him two games? Then Buffalo’s anger may have simmered. And what if Shanny gave him five games? Then he wouldn’t be playing today, and this sure-to-happen brawl wouldn’t happen.
Maybe it won’t but here’s guessing Buffalo will take advantage of the situation. We’re not saying they’ll eliminate Lucic’s bullying tactics altogether – heck, even his girlfriend cannot escape that – but they’ll certainly give it a shot.
Here’s to hoping the gloves drop, just like the Boston-Buffalo battles of past decades, when Cam Neely and Lindy Ruff traded hooks and jabs. Heck, let’s get crazy and have an inaugural puck drop, an eye-to-eye encounter between Neely, the Bruins’ president, and Ruff, the Sabres’ coach. That would be amazing.
And so would dethroning big bad Milan Lucic, who knocked away Ryan Miller, and lurks and waits to see if Buffalo knocks him back.
1Boston coach Claude Julien offered this splendid insight, according to Matt Kalman from nhl.com: “Looch has done the same thing to one of our coaches [assistant Geoff Ward] last year. He buries his head when he chases the puck, by the time he lifts it up, somebody’s there. Last year was a coach, this year was Miller.”
Julien’s nose is growing. Hey, Pinocchio: Take off the Boston blindfold, open your eyes to reality. Lucic’s glide began at the top of the circle, and ended where he collided with Miller – at the face-off dot. That’s a 15-foot distance. Find me the most clumsy and ungraceful skater in the NHL, and I guarantee he can change direction during a 15-foot glide. And it’s not like Lucic is Pavel-Bure fast. Get real, Julien.
2Bertuzzi should’ve been banned for life. If Steve Moore isn’t skating, Bertuzzi isn’t skating.
3Plus, it could save the NHL money. The average referee salary is between $115K and $220K. Forty-one officials are employed today. Imagine if Gary Bettman cut back on referees (and used the cash-flow savings for extensive therapy).
SHRINK: “You have to admit your problems, Gary …”
BETTMAN: “I don’t have problems.”
SHRINK: “Yes you do. You just have to admit them …”
BETTMAN: “I … can’t …”
SHRINK: “Yes you can …”
BETTMAN: “Ahh …”
SHRINK: “Go ahead …”
BETTMAN: “Ahh …”
SHRINK: (Eye brows raise)
BETTMAN: “Ahh, I’m pathetic. Original Six teams don’t play each other. Fighting is gone. Atlanta is gone, AGAIN …”
SHRINK: “Good, Gary.”
BETTMAN: “Ooh … shootouts suck, the instigator rule is a joke…”
SHRINK: “Keep going …”
BETTMAN: (Now sobbing) … two-referee system, obstruction …”
SHRINK: “Let it out, Gary …”
BETTMAN: (Now hysterical) “Hockey in EUROPE?!? What was I thinking? The Winter Classic? THE WINTER CLASSIC?!?”
SHRINK: “What’s wrong with the Winter Classic?”
BETTMAN: “It’s gonna have 60-degree temperatures this year. Watch. Just watch!”
4Bring back this look: No-helmet referees. Remember Kerry Fraser? He wouldn’t dare step into a brawl and ruin his Pert-Plus, Consort-Hair-Spray look.
5But we all knew Shanahan wouldn’t suspend him, right? How could he? That would be hypocritical. Remember 1997? The patented ‘Shanny Vertical Leap’? There he was, leaping at center ice to prevent Patrick Roy from grabbing Darren McCarty, who was busy pummeling Claude Lemieux. It’s remains the all-time best vertical leap ever performed on skates. It’s like a riveting display of poetic grace. Oh, the choreography. Oh, the landing. Mmmmmwa! Figure skaters wish they could get as high performing axles.