The one happy side effect of the NHL lockout – some say the only one – is the intense competition produced by the compacted, intra-conference schedule.
And that, in turn, cranks the heat up on the best regular-season games of all – those between fierce rivals. The Buffalo Sabres, for example, played their second game in 11 days against the Boston Bruins on Sunday night (a 3-1 loss) and will meet them again on Friday in Buffalo. In between, they play the Ottawa Senators on Tuesday, who are still considered a rival by the more veteran Sabres thanks to some playoff battles several years ago.
This stretch may be just what the Sabres need. Their fans are getting angry thanks to the Sabres’ slow start due to their poor defensive play. But the Sabres did manage to beat the Bruins in their first meeting this season and took a 3-2 win Saturday against the New York Islanders into Sunday’s game against Boston.
“Certain circumstances help the rivalry factor but for us the biggest as of now is Boston,” said Sabres forward Patrick Kaleta, a Buffalo native who knows a thing or two about his team’s rivalries.
Most teams have at least two, with an informal survey of several Sabres listing the Bruins, Toronto Maple Leafs and the Senators in that order. Kaleta’s enemies list is a bit longer.
“Boston, Toronto, Ottawa, Montreal,” Kaleta, 26, said. “Growing up a Sabres fan, I never liked those teams anyway. Luckily, I was drafted by the Sabres and still play for the Sabres so I still have the same hatred for those teams.”
One thing Kaleta and his teammates agree on is the same factors go into a good rivalry: A couple of good playoff battles or geographical proximity or special circumstances such as a big brawl or one player doing something particularly nasty to an important player.
The Bruins qualify on two of three counts. They knocked off the Sabres in the 2010 playoffs (the last time the Sabres qualified) but most of all hard feelings linger from a hit by Bruins bruiser Milan Lucic in November, 2011, that knocked goaltender Ryan Miller out for eight games with a concussion. It also didn’t help that none of the Sabres rushed to battle Lucic after the hit.
“That gets your hair up,” Miller said of Lucic’s contribution to the rivalry.
“There’s a lot of talk about Boston. We didn’t get in the playoffs last year but [the regular-season] games with them was our most intense series.”
Miller says the geographical rivalries will always linger but others will wax and wane. He still remembers the hard-nosed playoff battles with the Senators but noted only Jason Spezza, Chris Phillips, Daniel Alfredsson and one or two others from those teams are still playing in Ottawa.
“They had a lot of turnover,” Miller said.
“As soon as you turn over a little things die down. But you do hear about rivalries. When guys come on to our team, they know who the tough games are going to be against.”
For the Sabres, one team that will always represent one of those games is the Maple Leafs. They have not faced each other in the playoffs much – the last time being 1999 when the Sabres won the Eastern Conference final in five games – but having your own arena fill up with Leaf fans several times a year keeps things boiling.
“When they play here, it seems half the building is wearing Leaf jerseys,” Sabres forward Jason Pominville said. “I still have no idea how they manage to get that many tickets but they do somehow and it makes it exciting.”