Before we get started, let’s watch this again.
My first thought when I saw this live was that there had to be more to it. Hockey players aren’t crazy, and there is a reason for the way things develop on the ice. This wasn’t a witch hunt in search of incriminating evidence against Patrick Kaleta, just a desire to figure out why one player looks completely shocked while the other lies in a heap on the ground.
First of all, Denis Gauthier has no real reason to go after Pat Kaleta. The hit was clean, it wasn’t charging, and it was a completely reasonable forecheck. That’s the kind of hockey player Kaleta is, and we’ve seen far more questionable hits in his short career here in Buffalo.
But here’s where it all starts: after Gauthier tries to hit Pat in retaliation, Kaleta skates towards Denis instead of following the play back up ice. This is the universal symbol for “You want to make something of this?” Obviously Gauthier does, and he gets a bit overzealous because of it. He drops and hits Kaleta with a very quick punch, and he’s on the ground before the Kings hit the blue line.
Now… Gauthier punched Kaleta too quickly. This is quite obvious. However, I understand where he’s coming from and why he’s so surprised afterwards. Conventional wisdom says that Patrick Kaleta is willing to fight in this situation, and so Gauthier tries to get an early edge by throwing the first punch. It was premature, it was obviously misguided, but under the circumstances it seems completely logical. I will punch you, you will drop your gloves in return, and we will fight. We obviously know better, and down goes Kaleta.
Again, I’m not saying this is a bad thing. This is what Kaleta does, and I’m not necessarily saying there’s anything wrong with it. He’s not willing to fight, the coaches probably told him not to, and it’s his “role” to skate over there and draw in a penalty. The Sabres went on a four minute power play and he’s immediately played a good game.
However, this won’t be the last time something like this happens this season. There aren’t many teams from the Western Conference who know what Pat Kaleta is all about, and as the Sabres make that initial trip through the conference with Kaleta on the roster there will be misunderstandings such as these. Teams don’t know his tendencies, they don’t know his physical style, and they don’t know his unwillingness to “justify” or “defend” his actions, however you’d like to characterize it.
After this season, though, I think it will end. Teams will know he’s not going to throw the gloves down and fight, and so they won’t go after him as such. This isn’t a criticism as much as it is stating a fact: after this season Patrick Kaleta will be less useful to the Sabres because other teams’ inexperience with him will disapear.* The Gauthier Incident was based purely on inexperience with the beast that is Pat Kaleta, and after everyone gets a taste there will be a disclaimer that goes along with playing the Sabres. “Watch out for 36. 36 doesn’t throw.”**
Think about the last time the Sabres played Montreal. From what I saw the Habs figured out how to beat Pat Kaleta: beat the hell out of him. He’s not going to fight, but you play him just as physical as he plays you and he will break down. Do you think this hit was a coincidence? Montreal has seen Pat Kaleta in action and they know his number.
That Canadiens game was also the game Kaleta was hurt in. If I’m a Habs fan that’s exactly how I want to play an opponent’s instigator. How many times have you wanted someone to run Chris Neil or Sean Avery through the boards so hard he can’t skate for a week. That’s how Montreal played ours, and to me that’s textbook hockey.
Again, and I feel like I really need to stress this, I’m not saying what Kaleta did was wrong, nor am I saying what Gauthier did was right. Gauthier should have known better and at the very least should have waited for the mutual glove drop. He should and will get suspended, probably for two games or so. But when you really look it all this it makes sense in a weird, twisted way. This wasn’t a Bertuzzi or McSorley thing, this was a misunderstanding mixed with a little bit of poor decision making.
The strange thing is that if you’re not going to call Gauthier a cheap shot artist you should probably call Kaleta a turtle in this situation. However, I’m not sure I’d pick either. In a game that moves so fast, the split second decisions made by two different players in a unique situation combined to make something that looked pretty ugly. Maybe I’m wrong, but I don’t think the reality is as ugly as it appears.
Maybe I need to watch it a few more times, but I definitely want to hear what you have to say.
*The other argument I’m ignoring here is that teams like the Rangers continue to do stupid things with Kaleta because of the Mara hit. That’s something that may happen with other teams, but common sense says teams get past the antics of one player in the long run. The number, length, and frequency of major penalties because of Kaleta will go down over time. Not a positive or negative, just logic.
**Unless he eventually changes his game and adapts to how teams play him. I feel this will happen in time but I’m afraid it will be a reactionary move that may be made too late. We’ve seen that Kaleta has the ability to be a complete player, and I think he has to do more of that before he is pigeonholed into his current role.