A Kiss Before I Go

Thursday night’s Sabres game should be used as a Rosetta Stone to figure out what’s been missing from so much of this season. There was a good, loud crowd at First Niagara Center, which gave an air of importance to a game. Both teams were willing to play a bit fast and loose for the benefit of pace and scoring chances. No one wanted to see it slip into the skills competition, but all good things must end.

Oh, and Steve Ott blew a kiss at Dion Phaneuf.

For a game that started with Patrick Kaleta doing Kaleta things and the Tall Guy fighting another tall guy, the Storyline quickly became all about Ott. After getting roughed up by Phaneuf, he executed a booming hit on Mikhail Grabovski seconds later. Then he went back after the former Flame. Phaneuf wouldn’t go, though, and Ott called him out on it with his hands.

Ott got a penalty, and suddenly it’s 1-0 Leafs. Then it was 2-0 Leafs. It was a roundly embarrassing start to a game, and Ott’s kiss was the biggest joke of all. This is a guy who was doing his job, being agressive and making hits. Then he got cute and it cost his team.

Right when you want to get down on this team and chalk it up to yet another game where they look out of sorts, Ott starts to make amends. A nice assist on an Ennis goal brings the Sabres back into it. He had a few good shifts in the second and third and, most importantly, didn’t do anything stupid. And oh, there he is with a chance to win it in the shootout.

Of course he scored. After all, he was the Storyline.

Comparing Ott to Derek Roy is unfair, but it’s inevitable. They are two very different players, but when you’re traded for a guy you literally replace him in the lineup. Zack Kassian will be compared to Cody Hodgson forever. Whoever we get for Jason Pominville will know his competition the moment he steps into that fancy locker room.

tumblr_mig49pVUa01qkej80o1_500Ott can’t completely replace Roy’s offensive skills, but the toughness he brings is supposed to make a difference. Roy got his points, sure, but fans and media always made the argument that he didn’t matter enough. He wasn’t a leader. He didn’t Do The Right Things and he called out the coach on his way out the door. Very few people miss him.

Ott is supposed to be a different kind of player, but until this week he hasn’t really made enough of a clear impact to win hockey games. In this miniature win-streak, he’s been big. Start with a big game on Tuesday in Montreal to steal a few points. On Thursday, while Scott and Kaleta were the sideshow, he was a practical menace against the Leafs. He made amends for a mistake, and he sealed the deal when it mattered. Best of all, he made fans actually feel something about this team. That hasn’t happened since Vanek set the world on fire in his first 10 games.

You could sit here after two straight wins and consider the impact they will have on draft picks and the lottery and Darcy Regier’s decision to buy or sell human beings at the trade deadline. I’m sorry, but I just can’t do it. I won’t force myself to hedge enthusiasm when there has been so little to actually enjoy this season. The Sabres won last night, and some of the guys on the team were actually fun to watch at times. I’m going to hang onto that for as long as I can.

Tuesday’s win, when Ott was the hero in overtime, I felt nothing. It was a bad day, and the Sabres actually playing well couldn’t escape my poor mood. Maybe on Thursday I was willing to let myself enjoy this whole thing a bit more. Maybe I’m finally getting used to Steve Ott making things interesting.

If I’ve learned anything this year it’s that hockey doesn’t have to be fun. When it is, there’s little sense in trying not to enjoy it.