The Buffalo Sabres got tougher this offseason, and many think that has to do with the defending Northeast Division champion Bruins, who the Sabres continue to chase.
Buffalo isn’t just chasing Boston in the standings, though. They also proved last season that they also lack the toughness that has become one of the Bruins’ best traits.
The Sabres were criticized far and wide for their reaction to Bruins forward Milan Lucic running Buffalo goalie Ryan Miller in a game early last season. The Sabres didn’t do much respond in that game, with Paul Gaustad challenging Lucic the next time they met. Their other matchups last season featured a handful of fights, all of which felt like Buffalo trying to prove they weren’t going to take it from the B’s or anyone else for that matter.
They continued that thinking into the offseason. They added enforcer John Scott, who is essentially a 6-foot-8 brawler on skates, brought in to do two things — fight and make sure no one takes any liberties with Buffalo. They also added an agitator Steve Ott, who fits in nicely with Patrick Kaleta in terms of being able to get under an opponent’s skin. But as Gregory Campbell will tell you, Ott is no slouch when the gloves are on the ice, either.
It was assumed, of course, that these moves were done with the Bruins in mind. That’s not the case, says head coach Lindy Ruff.
“It was just overall team toughness, to make us a grittier team,” Ruff said following the team’s morning skate, according to the Buffalo News. “It had nothing to do with the Bruins.
“You try to win the puck battles and the territorial battles. We have to win a game. Not coming out of [Boston on Thursday] is not being successful. In a short season we need points. We’ve answered the physical challenge. We’ve been there for each other from day one in this. We play a gritty style, a hitting style. We have to win games.”
So far, the Sabres have struggled to do that. They opened the season with a pair of wins, but since then, they’ve struggled a bit. They enter Thursday’s matchup with a 2-3-1 record, making a battle with the Bruins that much more important for what they’re trying to do this year.
That appears to be where the club’s focus is, despite what their offseason moves might say.
“We dealt with [Lucic] last year,” Ruff added. “We had a game where Paul Gaustad fought Lucic and [Robyn] Regehr fought [Zdeno] Chara. We played a couple great games against them and came away with points. Hockey is about winning the game, winning the mental battle, winning the physical battle. It’s all about winning the territorial battles.”
If the Sabres want to catch the B’s where it matters, the standings, they’re going to have start winning all of those battles starting Thursday night in Boston.