By MELISSA GESCHWIND
News Sports Reporter
If the Buffalo Sabres are stoked about facing their former captain,
they don't want anyone to know it.
At Friday's practice, only coach Lindy Ruff would admit that
tonight's road game against Michael Peca's New York Islanders is
anything more than "just another game" for the Sabres.
"The one thing about Michael - if you've got your chin down in the
neutral zone, you may be picking yourself off the carpet. But we've
got some guys that can do that too, and I think we're aware and he'd
love to get in a couple good licks. I think we've got a couple guys
that'd love to get in a couple good licks," Ruff said.
Ask any of the players, though, and they'll tell you that the fans
and Peca might care about reunions, but the guys wearing the snorting
buffalo logo just want two points.
"I would think the same way like when we played Detroit, it was
probably more important for Slava (Kozlov) and Dom (Hasek) than for
Detroit to play Slava and us to play Dom. For an individual it might
be special, and it's probably special for him and there was a long
battle. But as the team goes there's nothing really there," goalie
Martin Biron said.
"It's going to be a bigger deal for him than it is for us, but it'll
be something. I mean, it'll be a little bit exciting. He was here for
a long time. He was part of a pretty good group that had a lot of
success. But we're worrying about beating the Islanders, not beating
Michael Peca," Rhett Warrener said Friday, after quipping Thursday
that he wouldn't play in tonight's game because "I'm too scared."
"Guys change teams all the time nowadays - it's not a special
occasion," Warrener said. "It happens, and it happens a lot. So
everyone's dealt with it, and everyone has friends on other teams. I
don't think it's any different with Pecs."
The conditions surrounding Peca's departure were quite different from
the norm, though. He didn't leave quietly, engaging in a yearlong
battle with Sabres management that kept him off the HSBC Arena ice
but not out of teammates' and fans' minds.
When Peca was traded to the Islanders over the summer for Tim
Connolly and Rochester's Taylor Pyatt, the prevailing feeling was
relief. Peca was relieved the Sabres wouldn't make him sit another
year; his Buffalo teammates were relieved not to have the contract
dispute casting a shadow on every team event; and Sabres management
was relieved to be able to cross "do something about Peca" off its to-
Now, the Sabres need to do something else about Peca - namely, shut
him down before the newly formidable Isles add Buffalo to their list
of victims. New York is the top team in the Eastern Conference with
34 points and a 15-5-3-1 record, marking one of the most stunning
turnarounds in the NHL in recent memory. Newcomers Chris Osgood,
Alexei Yashin and Peca - who has six goals and 16 assists to go with
his gift for open-ice checking and leadership skills - have been
widely credited with sparking their team's success.
"One thing about Pecs is he's a good player at both ends of the rink.
He gets a lot of attention for being a good defensive player, but
he's skilled offensively as well and he's certainly helped that team
a lot. And they're a hockey club that's playing very well - a well-
rounded hockey club," said Stu Barnes, Peca's successor as Buffalo's
captain. "I think the most important thing for us is to make sure
that we stay focused and that when the puck drops tomorrow night
we're ready to play a good game."
There was little deviation from the party line Friday, which either
means the players really don't plan to treat tonight's game as
anything special, or they're just tired of public emotion after a
week that included a verbal and physical war with the New York
Rangers and controversial comments by Kozlov after he learned he
would be benched for the Rangers game.
"I don't know how other guys feel about it," Miroslav Satan said of
Peca's holdout. "Obviously, it's tough to talk about it because we
are still here, so it's hard to judge anything or say anything about
it, but just try to be professionals and play the game. That's all I
can give you."
Ironically, the one player who seemed most fired-up about tonight is
one of the few Sabres to never have played with Peca. But then again,
Connolly has two seasons of memories from his time on the Island,
which began when he was just 18.
"I think when you look at any guy and they're going back to play
their old team, I think there's always that added extra incentive
that you want to win because the team traded you away. But I'm just
going in and taking it like any other game going in, and I'm going to
compete as hard as I can," he said.
Dmitri Kalinin's arm is now cast-free, as he got the remaining
dressings removed Thursday. There is no word yet on when he might be
able to play his first game since Oct. 26. . . . The Sabres sent
forward Ales Kotalik back to Rochester Thursday, and are back to
carrying just 13 forwards. . . . Ruff said Friday that defenseman
James Patrick is questionable for tonight's game. He sat out
Wednesday's win over the Washington Capitals because he was still
feeling the effects of taking an elbow to the head from Rangers
captain Mark Messier Tuesday night. . . .