Saturday, December 6, 2014

"Does this look familiar to you?"

Reprinted with permission from

Such was the question coming from Buffalo Sabres play-by-play man Dan Dunleavy to rink-side analyst Rob Ray. Although you couldn't see him, you could hear a smile coming through when that question conjured up memories of a time when scenes like last night were commonplace. "Yeah, I love it," responded Ray, fondly recalling a raucous era of which he was a large part.

That was back in head coach Ted Nolan's first stint with the Sabres, and he had a rambunctious group to say the least. During the 1995-96 season, Matthew Barnaby, Brad May and Rob Ray accumulated 917 total penalty minutes, a good chunk of them from roughing calls and fighting majors. During that season, lists Barnaby with 28 fights, May with 17, and Ray, 27.

Of the three, though, the 6'0" 205 lb. Ray had the unenviable task of taking on the heavyweights. Yet he reveled in his role, never hesitating to drop 'em with the enforcers of the league like Todd Ewen, Ken Daneynko and Donald Brashear. His fights with Toronto's Tie Domi are legendary in both cities and he once had his orbital bone smashed by possibly the greatest fighter of all time, Tony Twist.

That was a different era nearly 20 years ago, but some things never change. Last night's fireworks had to bring a smile to Sabres fans everywhere as they remembered a similar Nolan-coached team beginning to come of age.

To put last night's game in perspective, the Tampa Bay Lightning showed just how much of a talent disparity there is between the two teams as they rolled to a 5-0 victory. Unlike Tuesday when they were caught a bit off guard by the Sabres and handed a 2-1 shootout loss, Thursday they came to play. The three pillars of the team--Steven Stamkos, Victor Hedman and goalie Ben Bishop--were all on their game and their entire supporting cast followed suit.

It also showed great team character on the part of the Bolts, that when their franchise player was being threatened those on the ice didn't hesitate to jump in.

Make no mistake, I love Stamkos' game. He's an elite player in the league. But he probably shouldn't have done what he did about midway through the third period with his team up 4-0. He shouldn't have been wielding his stick like an axe after the whistle blew. Sure, Mike Weber may have gone a little overboard "clearing the crease," but no real harm came from it, nor would have come from it had Stamkos not served up a petty two-handed chop.

The Sabres were a frustrated team last night. All it took was one little incident like that to get things started. Not much really happened during the fracas as a bunch of mild jabs were thrown with the linesmen right in the thick of things. The only players to go to the box for fighting were Buffalo's Tyson Strachan and Tampa's Brett Connolly. Good thing it wasn't really a fight as Strachan probably would have crushed him. Good for Connolly, though, for jumping in.

Even that melee, which produced 20 minutes in penalties, would likely have been forgotten had not Hedman tried clip Zemgus Girgensons along the boards at the Tampa blueline a minute later.

It looked like a scene right outta 1995-96.

After Hedman's stupid attempt at a late hip-check on Girgensons, Buffalo's Nikita Zadorov came barreling in and soon everyone formed a tight nucleus. With arms and fists flying, Girgensons and Tampa's Cedric Paquette separated from the group and had at it. Both showed equal gumption with Paquette getting an early jump before Girgensons would land a couple of beauts "right on the bugle" (see video below.)

That one produced 34 penalty minutes including 10 minute misconducts to Hedman and Zadorov.

After winning six of seven including three in a row vs. Montreal (2) and Tampa, Buffalo came back down to earth. The Lightning have superior talent as a whole and when they're on their game, a team like the Sabres really doesn't have much of a chance.

As evidenced by their play through 26 games thus far, this young, developing Sabres team is having some growing pains. It's like a boy entering high school, they're still trying to find out who they are as challenges are coming from everywhere. While youthful, internal changes are taking place, external forces are testing their mettle as they're being challenged by bullies, ne'er-do-wells, pack rats and socially well off prettyboys.

It's something every boy faces and he'll either be willing take the short-lived pain of a fist in the face to stand up for himself, or have someone else do it for him. The Sabres are coming of age right before our eyes and are collectively embracing the former. The character the organization has been talking about is starting to shine through a little more and more with each passing game. The boys are becoming men.

When Ray said, "I love it," he had the tone of a proud father who was seeing himself out there. Maybe this group wasn't going up against the Twist's and Domi's of the league, but they were showing true passion. It's something that we haven't seen since Nolan was coaching Ray and Co back in 1995 and although we didn't get a good shot of Nolan, methinks he had a bit of a smile on his face too.

Zemgus Girgensons, 1st fight

(thx to SomeHockeyVideos)

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