- Pierre LeBrun, NHL
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TORONTO -- The Buffalo Sabres needed just one game of this new, shortened season to send a message to the rest of the league.
They intend on not getting pushed around anymore.
And the guy sending the message wasn’t who you’d expect. Which is exactly the point.
When Scott Hartnell of the Philadelphia Flyers hammered Sabres center Tyler Ennis from behind Sunday, Drew Stafford went after the rugged winger, and while he took the worst of it, that moment can do wonders for a team whose toughness has been questioned in recent years.
"A guy like Drew Stafford stepped up and fought a tough guy like Hartsy," new Sabres forward Steve Ott told ESPN.com before Monday night’s game in Toronto. "It not’s his usual thing to do that but Drew showed that we’re in this together, we’re going to stick up for each other. He’s got an 'A' on his chest and I was personally really proud and really excited for Drew."
I’m not a big proponent of fighting, but as long as it still exists in this game, you can’t ignore its influence. For skilled players to feel comfortable, they have to feel like someone has their back.
The additions of Ott and tough guy John Scott in the offseason signaled that the Sabres understood the need to beef up.
The Sabres appeared rattled last season in the wake of the Milan Lucic-Ryan Miller incident in which, the Sabres essentially never pushed back after the Boston Bruins winger ran over Buffalo's franchise goalie.
"Last year that whole Lucic thing sent this team for a tailspin, big-time," former Sabres tough guy and now TV color analyst Rob Ray said Monday. "I think just adding those guys was important."
Ott, Scott, Patrick Kaleta and Marcus Foligno are willing fisticuff participants, but the point of this season for the Sabres is to prove that there exists team toughness throughout; that nobody will get intimidated.
"It doesn’t matter who it is but we have to stick up for each other," Stafford said after the morning skate at Air Canada Centre. "It’s part of the game. If guys are going to run around, we just need to respond. In years past, obviously we were criticized for not responding. It’s something we wanted to take care right away this season. And it’s something we’re going to continue to do."
Stafford’s rare fight fueled his team, with the Sabres scoring three unanswered goals in the third period Sunday for a 5-2 win over the Flyers.
"I think those plays all really add to team toughness," agreed head coach Lindy Ruff. "We’ve had some good moments, also some tough moments as a team, but that was a real good moment. It was a shot from behind against his linemate and it was great to see him step in."
It all starts with Ott, who scored on a beauty of a shot Sunday, and his willingness to hit anybody that breathes has an effect on the rest of his teammates. That’s why they traded for him.
"He definitely adds energy, physicality, intensity, he’s been in the league a while so he adds that veteran presence," said Stafford. "We also added John Scott and that’s something we wanted to address in the summertime. We want to play harder to play against this. And we wanted to establish that right away."
Ott fully understands why he was brought in.
"For me personally, I want to bring sandpaper and compete to our team," he said. "You try to drag other guys into battle. By going out there and playing hard, you hope that other guys follow. It works like a chain reaction."
It won’t take fans long in Toronto, Boston, Montreal and Ottawa to find out Ott is now a Sabre. He will aggravate the entire Northeast Division and make opposing star players aware of his presence as well.
"For my myself, there’s nothing better than competing against the top-end guys," said Ott. "Some people may say it’s unfair to run the top-end guys, but you know what? It’s the NHL and nothing is fair and nothing is easy. You have to make it hard on them. If you don’t play them tight and hard, they’ll make you look silly in a hurry."
Oh, and he knows all about last season’s Bruins-Sabres history and has already looked to the schedule for his team’s first game in Boston.
"I saw it was Jan. 31," Ott said with a smile. "It’s great. The rivalries in this division are so much fun. I live for these type of games."