Whether he’s scoring a goal, drawing a penalty or mixing it up with the NHL’s biggest player, Nathan Gerbe
has certainly found ways to attract the attention of teammates, opponents, coaches and fans over the last three weeks. The 5-foot-5-inch forward has experienced a roller coaster of a season thus far, his first full campaign in the NHL, but heads into the All-Star break on a high note after making his presence felt over the last three weeks.
Gerbe has been the Sabres’ spark plug in the eight games he has played since being re-inserted into the lineup on Jan. 11. He had sat out seven of the previous 11 games as a healthy scratch, but maintained his conditioning level by working hard after practices with Sabres assistant coaches Brian McCutcheon and James Patrick, as well as player development coach Kevyn Adams.
The 23-year-old native of Oxford, Mich. has been contributing with his offense lately with five goals and two assists in the last eight games, marking the highest goal total of any Sabre in that stretch. Two of those goals came in a five-second span against the Islanders on Jan. 21, which set a new franchise record for fastest two goals. Head Coach Lindy Ruff always knew the offensive ability was there; it was just a matter of time before Gerbe would begin to cash in on his chances.
“He had some great opportunities (earlier this season),” Ruff said recently. “If you want to go back 20 games, he missed some opportunities. Now he’s capitalizing.”
One reason for Gerbe’s production of late has been an increased focus on getting pucks to the net. In his first 24 games of the season, Gerbe averaged 2.1 shots per game and scored one goal. Over the last eight contests, he has scored five times while averaging 4.4 shots per game.
“I want to shoot as much as possible when I get the chance, but I don’t want to just shoot to shoot, I want to shoot in good opportunities and work to get good opportunities instead of just shooting the puck on net to get it on net,” said Gerbe.
In addition to shooting the puck more, Gerbe is making sure to crash the net.
“Nathan is going to the real hard areas, and that’s where the goals are,” said one of his usual line mates, Cody McCormick
Gerbe’s recent string of impressive performances have also been a showcase for his aggressive, sometimes agitating, style of play. This approach has thrown some opponents off their games and helped the Sabres win.
A perfect example came in the Jan. 18 win over Montreal. Late in the third period of a 1-1 game, Canadiens captain Brian Gionta collided hard with Ryan Miller
to set off a scrum in the corner. Gerbe ended up on top of Montreal center Scott Gomez as the two players wrestled on the ice to earn matching roughing minors. Less than a minute after the penalties expired, both players found themselves on the ice together and Gomez took an undisciplined swing at Gerbe and was whistled for another penalty. Buffalo capitalized on the ensuing power play, which extended into overtime and resulted in the game-winning goal by Jason Pominville
“I’ve always been that way, I’m an aggressive player,” said Gerbe. “I have a tendency to get under people’s skin with my work ethic and try to finish hits. I guess it bothers some guys. It’s always been my game so I’ll continue to do that but do it smarter.”
Two nights after the Montreal game, the diminutive forward started a shoving match with 6-foot-8-inch Zdeno Chara of the Boston Bruins in an effort to rattle the opposition. Whether or not it worked will never be known, but the Sabres scored twice in the third period to leave Boston with a 4-2 win over the Northeast Division leaders.
“I know that’s what I have to do to get under guys’ skin,” Gerbe said the next day. “He’s a tough one to battle with but I felt I held my own in front of the net there with him, too.”
Gerbe’s all-around effort of late has impressed Ruff.
“He’s gotten under the skin of the opposition. He’s been noticed for plays away from the puck. And then when he’s got the puck, I think he’s really got his feet moving,” said the 13-year head coach.
Gerbe, a fifth round draft choice by the Sabres in 2005, came with a great track record for offensive production. As a junior at Boston College in 2007-08, he guided his team to the National Championship while leading the nation in scoring and was a finalist for the Hobey Baker Award. The next season, he joined Buffalo’s American Hockey League affiliate, the Portland Pirates, and was named the AHL’s Most Outstanding Rookie following a 30-goal campaign.
You can always be better. You’re never satisfied with what you’re doing and you want to strive to be better each game and be more of an impact player each night. - Sabres Forward Nathan Gerbe
Now in his third season of professional hockey, Gerbe made the Sabres roster out of training camp for the first time. No longer a rookie by the NHL’s definition because he had appeared in 10 games for the Sabres in each of the two previous seasons, Gerbe fought for playing time during the opening month and appeared in nine of Buffalo’s first 11 games while skating with a handful of different line mates.
His season then took an unexpected turn on Oct. 29 in Atlanta when he was struck in the face by a Tyler Myers
slap shot and suffered a fractured jaw, causing him to miss eight games. When he returned, he collected three assists over the next 11 games as his ice time fluctuated.
Despites being in and out of the lineup this season, Gerbe said he always remained confident.
“I always believed in myself, I never doubted,” he said. “I’m just going to keep working hard and keep shooting the puck and good things will happen when you do that. I want to be a goal scorer everywhere I go and this is a big step toward doing that.”
Now that he has established a spot in the lineup, Gerbe remains eager to keep improving and helping the team win games in its quest for a playoff berth.
“You can always be better. You’re never satisfied with what you’re doing and you want to strive to be better each game and be more of an impact player each night.”