Well, here we are. One game into the lockout-shortened season and there is already a misconception brewing about the boys in blue and gold: “This 2013 squad’s identity is TOUGHNESS!!!”
After acquiring Steve Ott & John Scott in the off-season, Darcy & Co. did their part to add some grit to a team that many considered “soft.” Those additions to a team already populated with the likes of Patrick Kaleta were of the mindset to build on toughness, but in a reactive not proactive manner. After having Ryan Miller qualify for the US Olympic gymnastics team, thanks to a helpful hand from Milan Lucic last November, the Sabres infamously did the opposite of a lot… nothing. Hockey analysts & fans alike criticized the Sabres for idly standing by and allowing their net minder to get obliterated without any sort of repercussion. That situation led to other similar incidents throughout the season and so on & so forth. This common theme was something many assumed the team would address in the off-season. However, the intent of shipping Derek Roy to the Big D and adding a couple bruisers wasn’t to become the modern day “Broad Street Bullies,” but rather have a line of defense against teams that were ready to deploy their goons. Bottom line, there is a monumental difference between a team that can hold their own physically & a team that plays dirty.
(Photo courtesy of IconSportsMedia.com)
The minute we all found out hockey would be returning, was the same minute many of us began breaking down our favorite team’s roster. For many the usual questions popped up… How skilled were the forwards? How deep was the defensive core? Was the goaltending reliable enough to steal a few games throughout the course of the season? For Sabres fans, the main areas of concentration were the decisions on defense, the 18-year-old Russian prodigy & the team’s identity for the season ahead.
The popular outlook that the Sabres were “drinking from the fountain of toughness” began to flood through the streets and has yet to stop. After the team’s home opener vs. the Flyers that opinion has only taken a stronger foothold for many. Ott, one of the new tough guys, scores a goal, while a goal-scorer in Stafford sticks up for his more vertically challenged teammate. This is exactly what I am getting at when referencing reactive toughness as opposed to proactive goonery. After Scotty Hartnell reintroduced Jason Pominville to the boards at the First Niagara Center in the second period, there was no immediate hoopla or fireworks. My twitter stream however, was immediately overrun with “nothing has changed” & “so much for the toughness.” The thing people forget is hockey players, despite having their heads bashed-in regularly, are smart individuals. They know situations & momentum shifts just as well, if not better, than everyone else. Blowing a first period lead and trailing by a goal isn’t necessarily the best time to throw away a man advantage with retaliation… its not smart hockey.
Despite the team not responding in the moment with a barrage of fists to the face of the redheaded one, Hartnell’s actions did not go unpunished. Unlike the Sabres, the Flyer’s are and will always be known for their dirty play and the old adage: “Fool me once, shame on you; fool me twice, shame on me,” became words to live by in this game. 11-minutes after giving the Sabres’ Captain an extra boost into the glass, Hartnell decided to go for seconds on Tyler Ennis as seen in the video I linked above. This time, in a tie game, the rough stuff made sense. Drew Stafford and Scott Hartnell battled it out and produced some first rate imagery as shown above. This was the proper time to say enough is enough. This is the difference between being a dirty team & a team that can hold it’s own… picking your spots to enforce toughness and not seeking out reckless physicality for the heck of it.
Despite the physically imposing off-season acquisitions, this team isn’t an overwhelmingly tough group that can play defense and score, but rather a skilled unit who can now protect themselves and drop the gloves if the situation calls for it… don’t confuse the two. At the end of the day in looking at a team like the Flyers who tote a reputation for being dirty versus a team like the Sabres who intelligently & strategically pick their battles, ten out of ten times, I’d take the latter.
Feel free to let me know what you think on Twitter at: @BradleyGelber
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