Reprinted with permission from hockeybuzz.com
In the years between Ted Nolan's time on the Buffalo Sabres bench we often heard about how players needed to stick up for each other, and how important it was. There were instances of that happening between his head coaching stints in Buffalo, like Drew Stafford, a rookie at the time, engaging with the Ottawa Senators Chris Neil after the latter laid out Chris Drury with a cheap shot. But the occurrences were too few and far between and nearly every time a Sabres player "stuck up for his teammate," one was left with the impression that it was more obligatory than something straight from the heart.
As a team, they're still at that place, but it would seem as if they might be beginning to break free. Or at least trying to.
Last night, St. Louis Blues d-man Ian Cole sent Tyler Ennis into the boards. The 6'1" 220 lb. Cole simply brushed off the 5'9" 160 lb Ennis around the goal line sending him to the ice and hard into the wall. It was well after the play and probably didn't need happen. But it did.
Rookie Nikita Zadorov ended up engaging in a bout with Cole, acquitting himself well, while Ennis found himself fighting 5'11" 220 lb. Alexander Steen. Said Ennis, "I went into the scrum, just trying to give [Cole] a couple shots and Steen comes in out of nowhere and had his gloves off. I didn't know until about ten seconds in that his gloves were off and I was 'in-one.'"
Although the scene lacked the all-out aggression of a Rob Ray and Brad May melee, it's a step in the right direction for this club as they displayed some anger and emotion and a willingness to stick up for one another. Last night the Sabres were up against a bigger, much more talented Blues' team and held up pretty well, all things considered. They're also well aware of their place on the league's totem pole, which happens to be at the bottom.
What brought about the anger and emotion in the Sabres last night was the bravado displayed by Steen after his fight with Ennis. "You get mad and you get angry," said Nolan. "Someone does something to one of our best players [in Ennis] who's not a very big man, and [the] guy who fights him thinks he won the heavyweight championship of the world. All of a sudden [he's] showboating it. Of course you're going to stand up and defend."
Even though they ended up losing the game 6-1, Buffalo was at least able to maintain a sense of dignity in hanging with the Blues before three "garbage-time" powerplay goals late in the third period gave us the final score. "We played them well for most of the game," said Ennis. "What we can take away from the game is that we sent the message that we'll stick up for each other. I thought we deserved a better fate. We played a lot better than we have the last few games."
Those "garbage-time" powerplay goals, three of them, were courtesy of a five-minute match penalty given to Nic Deslauriers for spearing Vladimir Taresenko. There's really no dignifying a move like that, but when the compete-level in a player is ratcheted up by events within the game, stuff like that can happen.
Although they're about the same size, there's no way Deslauriers was going to goad Taresenko into a fight and spearing out of frustration was pretty stupid. Nolan couldn't have been happy with that, but he didn't outright condemn him either. Nolan looked at it as the rookie trying to make something happen because something else happened, but Nolan said, "Unfortunately he did the wrong thing."
One thing that came out of all this was an increase in the team's compete-level which is something they've been looking for. It remains to be seen if they played "out of character" last night or if that consistent compete-level is really a part of their overall character.
"Out of character" is a phrase that former head coach Lindy Ruff used all too often as he hoped his players would ramp up an intensity that they just didn't seem to have. A reporter asked Nolan if it was one of the keys for the team going forward. "It means compete," responded Nolan. "You compete and you get mad and you get angry."
That the smallest man on the team brought out some anger and emotion in his teammates wasn't surprising to Nolan. "One thing about Ennis, he has the word compete all over him. He competes, he gets mad, he went right in. He didn't worry about size or anything. He went right in. He was angry. And it was good to see a couple of guys respond to it."
It remaims to be seen where this all leads, whether this was simply a brief, "out-of-character" display of anger or if it's actually part of their constitution, but for fans who've been suffering through some pretty bad, emotionless play, it was enough to get the blood pumping. At least a little bit.