Even in today’s New New NHL, fighting is important. The line brawls are gone, but a glove-less fist still has its place. There is a use for aggression and retribution and making clear to your opponent that a team will not back down from a physical challenge. Fisticuffs are nice, a part of hockey that has both a practical and superficial purpose.
You know what else is important in hockey? Defense. That’s what keeps the puck out of your own net and frustrates an opponent more than any big open-ice hit or fight. If a team can’t score, they can’t win. And winning is everything.
Tonight the Sabres play the Boston Bruins, a team that has routinely embarrassed the Sabres on all fronts. They’ve won a Stanley Cup playing a style most fans envy: tough, offensively exciting and defensively sound. They can score, they can fight. And their fighters can score.
The Sabres are lacking pretty much all of that. They haven’t won a playoff series in years and they’ve missed a working physical toughness since, well, I forget. I honestly can’t recall the last time someone like Milan Lucic played in blue and gold. The closest we’ve been in my lifetime is probably Matt Barnaby, and this is what that guy’s been up to these days.
The Sabres are not the Bruins, and that’s a problem when the Bruins are winners. Lucic concussing Ryan Miller didn’t end the Sabres’ playoff hopes last year, but it was a signature moment for fans whose chorus cry is that Buffalo “just isn’t tough enough” to win it all.
A major aspect of Buffalo’s offseason retooling was intended to fix that. Competent offensive center Derek Roy got shipped out for tough forward Steve Ott. They signed tall guy John Scott. They seem to have poked Drew Stafford and Mike Weber with large, pointy sticks to get them nice and ornery.
For the most part, it’s worked. There have been minor tests of mettle and the Sabres have responded to all of them. If Miller gets bumped, the opponent hits the ice. Pat Kaleta gets boarded and Mike Weber drops the gloves.
They have passed these “tests” while losing games and playing awful defense, though. Take a look at that first Leafs goal on Tuesday. Tyler Myers would have been better served eating stale popcorn in the press box on that play, and Mikhail Grigorenko was a disgrace defensively on Toronto’s second goal. Miller could have played better, sure, but we continue to see poor defensive efforts from the Sabres this year. This is more important than a fight or two in Boston.
If the lockout taught Sabres fans anything, it’s that Jeremy Jacobs is probably a jerk. It’s nice that this information can add to the Bruins rivalry, but it probably won’t stop anyone from getting a soft pretzel at First Niagara Center. Principles rarely supersede an empty stomach, and physical confrontations are rarely measured on a scoreboard.
The point is this: rivalries are nice and winning is nicer. As much as I’d like to see the Sabres ANSWER THE BELL and make Boston pay for its past crimes against Miller, et. al, there are more pressing matters to attend to in this game.
Buffalo’s been passing tests this season, but it’s been a while since they’ve won a hockey game. They can definitely do both, but I’m more interested in the scoreboard than seeing another fight like this.