With Blackhawks defenseman Niklas Hjalmarsson coming back tonight from his two-game suspension for his hit from behind on Buffalo Sabres forward Jason Pominville, his return to the ice comes at a rather peculiar time as the Blackhawks face the Sabres once again tonight in Chicago. Revenge is on the mind of many fans and perhaps on the minds of some Sabres players (Patrick Kaleta most notably) but is there a reason to think that tonight’s game will go the way of “Slap Shot” and turn into a game-long brouhaha? Perhaps yes, but it won’t happen for the reasons you think it will.
The Sabres go into tonight’s game with Chicago struggling. Struggling to win, struggling to score goals, struggling in most facets of the game. They’re 1-3-1 to start the year, and the only win came opening night against Ottawa, 2-1 over the Senators. Since that game, they’ve been inconsistent as anything. Either their defense has let down goalie Ryan Miller the way it did against the Rangers in a 6-3 loss and the Blackhawks in a 4-3 loss, or the offense has disappeared the way it did losing in overtime to the Devils 1-0 or their loss to Montreal last night 2-1. It’s all part of the bumps in the road early in the season when trying to find your way, but the Sabres are looking for a spark to get them going. Enter Niklas Hjalmarsson.
Tonight, the Sabres get the match needed to light their fire in getting to have their “revenge” game against the Blackhawks so soon after Hjalmarsson’s hit on Jason Pominville that’s knocked him out of the lineup since then. With the teams being in opposite conferences, it’s rare that they get to play each other again so soon or even a second time at all. While the Sabres may look to settle the score with Hjalmarsson via fisticuffs, and the Blackhawks should be ready for this and expect something to happen, this is the exact kind of catalyst the Sabres need to get going.
After all, if the team can’t rally together to stand up for their fallen teammate and get back at the team that took him out and beat them on the scoreboard last weekend, where else do you go from there? The Sabres are already a grumpy team as last night’s loss got Lindy Ruff up in arms with the play of some of his forwards, most notably Tim Connolly.
Having a frustrated team come into this situation is the sort of thing that all-out brawls can be made of, but settling things out recklessly like that with no regard for the game isn’t going to help the Sabres overall. They’ll need to bottle those emotions and release them in the form of playing better hockey. Settle the score with Hjalmarsson early in the game (and by the books, no dirty hits) and then ride that emotional high to win the game.
For you fans with a ravenous blood lust and hoping for a line brawl and a tussle like you used to see in the 70s and 80s, you might want to look elsewhere for your testosterone rage tonight. That’s not to say you’re going to see a bad game tonight in Chicago, in fact you might see one of the best ones of the night there. Games where everyone is playing with a hot head and on the edge are great, just look at the playoffs. Expect that sort of intensity tonight from the Sabres, just don’t go expecting everyone and their brother to be putting on the foil.