With prized goaltender Ryan Miller slated to be conspicuous by his absence as the Boston Bruins visit his Buffalo Sabres on Wednesday, the hockey equivalent of a severe weather watch must be kept on standby.
About the only surefire side story to this game will be the Buffalo crowd railing against the active presence of Bruins power forward Milan Lucic, whose open-ice hit 11 nights prior rendered Miller out indefinitely with a concussion and neck soreness.
The first of two big related questions concerns how the Sabres themselves will receive Lucic. The second is how all of the aforementioned might influence the officiating on Wednesday.
The Bruins, including Lucic himself, certainly have the means and the will to stand up to a physical retort from the Sabres. But taking care not to abuse those means could be another issue.
And of all teams, the Bruins should know from recent history what a saga like this can do to their disciplinary record on an individual scoresheet.
There are already enough parallels between the repercussions of the Lucic-Miller incident and those of last year’s unfortunate Zdeno Chara-Max Pacioretty episode to ponder how Wednesday’s contest will be called.
Like Chara, Lucic faced no discipline beyond an on-ice penalty, even though a suspension probably would have been the safe and shrewd choice.
The fact that Chara belted Pacioretty into the stanchion separating the player benches convinced the league to restructure and reposition those stanchions so as to minimize the risk of similar injuries in the future. Likewise, last week’s NHL GM meetings included proposals to modify the rulebook as a means of protecting goaltenders from the injurious impact Miller endured two Saturdays ago.
And then there is the parallel that will carry a “TBD” label until puck-drop at the First Niagara Center.
When the Bruins face the Sabres again in front of a hostile crowd that does not believe justice was sufficiently served, will the zebras be subconsciously inclined to issue penalties to Boston more readily?
There is sufficient evidence to believe that was the case last season when the Bruins returned to the ice two nights after the frightful occurrence in Montreal and one day after Chara was given the OK to carry on.
None other than the Sabres were the Bruins’ next adversary in the aftermath of the Pacioretty hit and the no-suspension confirmation. In that March 10 contest at TD Garden, a fall-from-ahead overtime loss for Boston, Chara’s team was whistled for seven minor penalties. Conversely, Buffalo endured only three shorthanded segments, including a bench minor for too many men on the ice.
The majority of the citations were doled out in the second period, the first unaccompanied sentence being a borderline boarding call on Chara at 6:54. Chara had decked Buffalo’s Steve Montador as they both approached the Boston goal line in the far lane of the zone and Montador took at least a full second to spill onto the ice and slide into the neighboring wall. He got up almost as quickly as the referee’s right arm.
It only took 19 seconds and one more whistle to issue a cross-checking minor to Dennis Seidenberg. Later that period, Tomas Kaberle was called for tripping a mere 57 seconds after Johnny Boychuk was finished serving his two minutes for hooking.
The Bruins would deal with another protracted 5-on-3 disadvantage in the third, when Mark Recchi and Brad Marchand were boxed 17 seconds apart.
Most of those calls were indisputable. But the Chara infraction, in particular, rightly scratched multiple heads. Ditto the mere fact that Boston dealt with two lengthy 5-on-3 segments.
Granted, it would be ludicrous and irresponsible to claim that referees Ian Walsh and Brad Watson were knowingly attempting to take justice into their own hands that night. But they were probably a tad uneasy calling a game with that team and that player when the heat stemming from the Chara hit still had not tapered off.
If anything, they could not help but take an overly cautious measure. If Chara were simply not involved in that game, this discussion never would have come into existence.
Fast-forwarding to the present, the Sabres’ best bet may be to try getting under the Bruins’ skin in the hopes of drawing overt retaliation. In turn, Boston’s physicality combined with the Buffalo crowd’s residual frustration could instill a similar subconscious discomfort to Wednesday night’s officiating crew.
Accordingly, the Bruins’ best bet is to respond to the Sabres with no more and no less than is necessary and rational. If any Boston skaters are going to go to the sin bin for arguably chippy play, they must do their best to justify taking a Buffalo counterpart with them.
If a Sabre comes looking expressly and exclusively for a fight, it’s on Lucic or a teammate to either let him go off alone for delaying the game or ensure that Buffalo is flagged for an extra two minutes for instigating on top of the matching majors.
With no intentional slant whatsoever, the officials will call this the way they see it. Therefore, the long-reputedly tough Bruins’ job is to ensure they appear no more villainous than their opponents.