by Brian Wheeler
Sticks and stones may break their bones, but pre-game chatter won't bother the Buffalo Sabres.
Prior to Buffalo's 4-3 victory over the Toronto Maple Leafs on Saturday night, Toronto's Wade Belak insinuated that the Sabres could be manhandled into submission. The menacing six-foot-five, 221-pound defenseman compared Buffalo's brand of hockey to that which children play in their spare time.
"A team like Buffalo that's got so many small, skilled players, the only way to stop them is to start hitting them," Belak told the Buffalo News. "They have a lot of guys that's not a part of their game to be bangers. They got more goal scorers and danglers.
"When you're playing a team that's not willing to respond as far as the physical part and you're all over them and dominating them, you're going to win 95 percent of the games.
"You can't play river hockey out there with 20 guys that aren't going to hit and try to play at the end of their sticks and just try to poke pucks out. It's not going to work every night. If you face a good, physical team that's willing to hit you, you're not going to win as many games."
The comments were made before Buffalo's second win against their Northeast Division rivals, and served as a small preview of Toronto's game plan. The Leafs did hold a slight 33-27 edge in hitting during the contest but were defeated after allowing four even-strength goals.
On Monday morning, the blueliner's comments were met with a lot of eye rolling and half smiles in the Sabres locker room.
"First of all, I don't need to worry about what Wade Belak has to say after 36 seconds of ice time," said head coach Lindy Ruff. "We are a skilled team and we play a skilled game. Teams think at times that they can run us out of the building. At the same time, if you try it, that will open up other avenues where we can expose teams.
"I don't think our team would ever back down from any physical challenge."
Enforcer Andrew Peters shrugged off Belak's comments as just banter to stir the rivalry pot. Buffalo will take on Toronto in the tail end of back-to-back games this Thursday in HSBC Arena (MSG, 7 p.m.).
Toronto is 0.500 in the "Queen City" during the season series, winning a 4-1 decision on November 4 before a 7-4 Sabres blowout 16 days later. The Sabres square off with the Chicago Blackhawks in the United Center on Wednesday night (MSG, 7 p.m.).
"I don't have any rebuttal to that comment," said Peters. "We are team tough. I don't think you'll ever see anybody on our team fold-the-tent."
"It's funny to hear him say that," said Jason Pominville
. "He can say whatever he wants but we still came out and won the game. We'll be ready for them come Thursday."
Belak's comments more than anything showed a shift in mindset.
Opposing teams are less willing to get into skating wars with Buffalo, instead opting to get creative, physical or just plain tricky when trying to slow the Sabres pace on the ice and in the standings.
With two games in hand, Buffalo trails the Anaheim Ducks by a single point to stand top the NHL. Buffalo has lost back-to-back games only twice this season and are averaging a breathtaking 3.76 goals per game.
Ask any hockey analyst and you'll discover a pair of sure fire ways to distinguish good teams from those who are just mediocre, winning percentage in one-goal games and road record. Buffalo's 8.33 win percentage and 16-4-1 record away from HSBC Arena lead the league in both categories.
"Guys are going to shoot at us and try to knock us off," said Paul Gaustad. "We're the best team in the Eastern Conference right now, so we expect people to come at us hard. Every team plays physical against us and we've been able to battle through that.
"We may not have the toughest team but we stick together. We're not individuals. There's not one guy on an individual line that won't stick up for another one. If we stick together, there is no team that will really push us around."