Paul Gaustad, all agreed, is a stand-up guy.
One minute, 23 seconds into the game, the Buffalo Sabres centre challenged Boston Bruins winger Milan Lucic to a fight. Lucic readily accepted and pummeled Gaustad for about 30 seconds, ending with three consecutive punches to his head. Both players then went to the penalty box as the fans roared their approval.
So it goes in the NHL. In the eyes of the hockey world, the honour of the Buffalo Sabres was restored. The Sabres should have been able to brag they also won the game, but they blew a two-goal lead to lose 4-3 in a shootout and let the Bruins extend their winning streak to 10 games. The Bruins also moved ahead of the Sabres in the Northeast Division standing, which caused Sabres head coach Lindy Ruff some angst, but the main thing was the fight.
“We answered every call,” Ruff said afterward.
Not that Gaustad had much to say about it. He may have earned kudos from everyone around the league but when Ruff sent him out after the coach waited to see if Lucic was going out for his first shift of the game, Gaustad really didn’t have a choice. It also didn’t help that the hosts' local sports radio station spent most of the day nominating Gaustad for the job since the Sabres’ two nominal tough guys, Cody McCormick and Patrick Kaleta, are both injured.
On Nov. 12, during the last game between these teams, Lucic knocked Sabres goaltender Ryan Miller flying with a shoulder to the head and left him with a concussion. It still isn’t known when he will be able to play again.
Lucic was given a minor penalty. Brendan Shanahan, who turned a lot of heads when he issued suspensions left and right for hits to the head in preseason games in his first turn as the NHL’s new vice-president in charge of player safety, decided Lucic needed no further slaps on the wrist. That’s been happening a lot since at least some of the league’s general managers expressed their extreme unhappiness with the number of suspensions.
Even worse, none of the Sabres players went after Lucic when he decked Miller. Gaustad was one of the ones on the ice during the collision and they were publicly dressed down by Ruff, which made Wednesday’s game the talk of the town. In the last 24 hours, the rest of the NHL started watching and talking about it, too.
Shanahan phoned both general managers, Peter Chiarelli of the Bruins and Darcy Regier of the Sabres, and warned them against any shenanigans. That wasn’t enough to keep Ruff from making it clear he expected someone to do something with Lucic.
“I'm expecting our team to come out hard in all areas,” Ruff said after the game-day skate. “We have to play a real hard game. That's the message in all areas. Hard on the puck, hard getting it back, hard physically.”
But what about Shanahan’s warning, coach?
“I haven't talked to my team about that,” Ruff said. “It doesn't change anything for me.”
This must also have been an uncomfortable day for Regier. He is one of the league’s most outspoken GMs when it comes to on-ice violence, although he did make it known to Shanahan he was not happy Lucic did not get suspended.
The prospect of fighting Lucic was not an appetizing one for the Sabres. They’re a bit on the small side and prefer to play a skating game. Lucic, at 6 foot 4 and 220 pounds, is one of the toughest players in the league, one of those rare fellows who can fight as well as score and he seems to relish the role of villain.
He also indicated he understood the Sabres felt they had to fight him over the Miller hit. Lucic and the Bruins were in the same boat a couple of times over the last two years when they did nothing immediately after Patrice Bergeron was concussed by Philaelphia Flyers defenceman Randy Jones and Marc Savard was put on the shelf, perhaps permanently, by Matt Cooke of the Pittsburgh Penguins with a head-shot.
But the mantra in the NHL these days is forget the frontier justice, let the referees and the league handle this stuff. Ruff, though, made it clear he wasn’t buying that right now.
So Gaustad did his duty.
“For myself, I wanted to step up after what happened in Boston,” Gaustad said after the game. “It was an unfortunate incident in Boston and I give credit to Milan [Lucic]for fighting.”
Gaustad had at least one sympathizer in a Bruins uniform. “I feel bad for anybody that has to face Luch,” Bruins goaltender Tim Thomas said.
Lucic, though, admitted his heart wasn’t really in this one. He has had some epic fights when his blood is boiling but even though he insists he does not regret hitting Miller he said he couldn’t really get angry for this one.
“Well, it was my first shift, so it was tough to get angry,” he said. “Still, to this day I will say [the Miller hit]was an [unintentional]collision. But you’re always prepared to step up and fight for yourself.”
A few minutes later, when Bruins winger Brad Marchand took a run at tiny Sabres winger Nathan Gerbe, Gaustad went after Marchand. When a large scrum developed, Sabres defenceman Robyn Regehr bravely challenged towering Bruins defenceman Zdeno Chara to a fight and took his lumps, although Chara passed up a chance to land a haymaker when he had Regehr down.
After that, as it happens in almost all of these games, it was back to hockey. Honour was restored, after a fashion.
“It was good to see guys didn’t do anything stupid,” Lucic said. “We went through the same thing with Cooke and Savard and nobody did anything stupid.”