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Buffalo Sabres' Patrick Kaleta (36) checks Pittsburgh Penguins' Sidney Crosby (87) during the second period of an NHL hockey game in Buffalo, N.Y., Friday, March 30, 2012 (AP)
Buffalo Sabres' Patrick Kaleta (36) checks Pittsburgh Penguins' Sidney Crosby (87) during the second period of an NHL hockey game in Buffalo, N.Y., Friday, March 30, 2012 (AP)

Controversial Kaleta trying to turn over new leaf and help Buffalo revival Add to ...

He isn’t seeking your approval, he doesn’t need your affection, but public enemy No. 1 in the NHL does want people to know he’s trying hard to change.

Buffalo Sabres winger Patrick Kaleta may be the most despised player in hockey at the moment – he is just coming off a five-game suspension for his most recent act of villainy, a nasty cross-check of New York Rangers forward Brad Richards – but he has no particular affinity for the title.

Like other controversy-courting purveyors of sandpaper before him, most notably Matt Cooke of the Pittsburgh Penguins, the 26-year-old forward is working to alter the way he plays the game, lest it cost him his livelihood.

It’s a tricky proposition.

“It’s not an easy thing, but growing up, everyone always said … you can’t play for the Sabres, especially being from Buffalo, it’s your dream, whatever. I’ve worked pretty hard to get here and it comes down to working hard to stay here,” he said a few hours before the Sabres’ 3-2 overtime win over the streaking Montreal Canadiens.

“I’ll work however many hours, however long it takes to change my game to be a part of this team. Because this is my dream, and this is my love.”

Here’s the rub: while Kaleta is bent on adapting his rough-house style – he was suspended four games for head-butting an opponent last year – he is expected to play recklessly and to stir up his opponents’ passions.

“He plays on that line, but at the same time every single guy in this dressing room wants him to continue to play that way. I don’t want his game to change, I want him to be a factor … and to be on that edge,” said teammate Steve Ott, also a pest of considerable repute. “It keeps a lot of guys over there honest, if not a little nervous when he’s on the ice. That’s something many teams don’t have.”

So how to change without losing something essential to the reason he’s in the NHL in the first place?

In Kaleta’s case that’s meant learning new ways to hit, and adapting his technique on everything from shot-blocking to the angles he takes when chasing an opponent.

“I’m a high-energy guy, I’m passionate, I try to key in on my forecheck and stuff like that, what you’ve got to do is you watch video, you evaluate different segments of your game, you see how other players do it,” said Kaleta, who is as soft-spoken and candid off the ice as he is rage-inducing on it. “I’ve worked with a sports psychologist who has helped me a lot with decision-making under pressure. Obviously I’m not perfect … but I’m going to keep working.”

Kaleta is precisely the sort of rock-in-the-shoe pest that helps good hockey teams become great ones, but only insofar as he can stay on the ice.

On Tuesday, he did that admirably – the first sighting of note was a cheeky shove on Montreal defenceman Francis Bouillon after a whistle, which drew a crowd.

He killed penalties, he played a little 5-on-5, he finished with an even plus-minus, he mostly kept his nose clean.

In a sense, this is progress.

Ott said Kaleta’s energy had been missed, and while he didn’t have a direct impact on the game, the Sabres looked a little less lost than they have during a 1-3-3 stretch – their recent form has led to frustration boiling over, goalie Ryan Miller lambasted Kaleta (his former road roommate) for complaining publicly about being benched, although the affair was later chalked up to a misunderstanding over what was said.

Sabres fans might be tempted to say they won this one thanks to grit – after all, leading scorer Thomas Vanek left with a leg injury in the second period – a dose of which was injected with the return of a certain Buffalo native to the lineup.

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