Tampa's Nikita Kucherov will never be mistaken for a Cro-Magnon, Milan Lucic-type player who's main purpose on the ice is to use his animal instincts to intimidate the opposition. Kucherov couldn't be further from that as he's a brilliant offensive player for the Lightning and unlike the hulking Lucic, he's all of 5'11" 180 lbs. However, the dirty hit that took out Sabres forward Vladimir Sobotka tapped into that type of mindless intimidation.
Sobotka was low-bridged by Kucherov late in the first period of Buffalo's 3-2 loss in yesterday and unlike challenging a 6'3" 231 lb. Lucic, any number of Sabres players on the ice at the time could have come at the smaller Kucherov with little fear for their personal safety. But they didn't:
--Casey Mittelstadt had a front row seat for the hit, as did the official who did not call an interference penalty on the play (at least.) He's 6'1" 199 lbs.
--Defenseman Colin Miller was on the ice and had the same view. He clocks in at 6'1" 193 lbs.
--At 5'11" 195 lb. Jeff Skinner is about the same weight-class as Kucherov but had his back to the play. Skinner has shown enough gumption in the past as to not take something like that lightly, so one would assume that if he saw what happened he'd have been all-in
--Henri Jokiharju is 6'0" 195 lbs. He was on the ice too.
Size-wise, none of them had anything to fear but, they all went about their business as if nothing of note had happened, even with Sobotka laying on the ice in obvious discomfort clutching his leg.
After the game, Sabres head coach Ralph Krueger was asked about the hit from the referee's perspective and he told the gathered media that the stripes decided "it was a fair hit" with Krueger adding, "we need to move on whether we like it or not." Skinner was one of three players available post-game and the only one available to the media that was on the ice at the time. He was asked about it but he had his back to the play so there really wasn't much he could say about it. It should be noted that this was Game-1 of the NHL's Global Series being held in Stockholm, Sweden and the last thing the league needs is controversy, especially with a superstar like Kucherov being involved. As of now it looks like a lid will be kept on things until the Series is finished.
Although no one will say it, and especially with the Global Series as a backdrop, the lack response by Buffalo to Kucherov's actions was embarrassing for the team. On a global scale. Not only did they lose a player because of a dirty hit but to add insult to injury, literally, a mere one minute later Buffalo was whistled for a tripping penalty and the Lightning would convert on the ensuing powerplay to make the score 2-0. The hit itself took :01 second to unfold, which is but a drop in the vast pool of an NHL season. However, the revelations and consequences could be a little more far reaching depending upon how this Sabres team approaches the aftermath of the game.
Individual Buffalo players on the ice should take on some responsibility for not standing up for their teammate, but it should also be pointed out that none are really that type of player to begin with. That fact doesn't completely absolve them but it helps put into perspective what kind of team general manager Jason Botterill has built to this point.
Botterill has been leaning heavily towards building a team that is skilled and fast which, as stats-geeks will rightfully champion, is an up-to-date way to approach the modern NHL, especially in the Eastern Conference. Having said that, it's still hockey and intimidation will always be a part of the game. Tampa knows that, and they're more than willing to straddle the line between fair and dirty with Buffalo knowing that the Sabres haven't, and probably won't do, anything about it either in direct response or ultimately on the scoreboard.
We're in the early stages of Krueger's first year in Buffalo and so far he's stuck to his mantra that his team is playing the way he wants them to. Although the results are starting to even out, for the most part he's seeing the execution he wants to see, which is a good thing. Post-game yesterday he said, "our offense definitely needs to desperately want to shoot more" and one could take the 'desperately want' portion of that statement as a way of him saying that his team is lacking the will to get to where they need to be to get shots off right now. A microcosm of that sentiment might be found in their full perimeter game with the goalie pulled in a 6-on-5 situation late in the third period yesterday. They registered only one shot on goal in the final two-plus minutes of the game when they had the extra attacker and that one shot came from 25' out.
Krueger's team is playing on it's heels right now and that might be at the core of what happened yesterday both with the Kucherov hit and the final 3-2 score in Tampa's favor. The Sabres have come down from their early-season cloud to find themselves on a four-game losing streak (0-3-1,) they've now lost five of their last six games (1-4-1) and have totaled only nine goals during this six-game stretch. They're in a rut and taken as a whole, this team confidence-level is at a low point. You can bet the house that Lightning head coach Jon Cooper and his players sensed some unease on the part of the Sabres because of their struggles and they knew and that one or two plays of consequence could ultimately shape the outcome of the game in their favor. Good teams do that. Average teams need to learn how to overcome that.
One should expect some desperation on the part of Buffalo for Game-2 of this Global Series back-to-back that begins at 1 pm ET today. Those in Sabreland shouldn't expect a charge with the battle-cry "Viva Sobotka!!!" but we should see a Buffalo team on their toes early in the game. What they do with it is another matter as they've gotten off to excellent starts lately but haven't been able to get a goal on the board to give them the confidence necessary to get rolling. If that happens again, we can probably expect more borderline physical activity from the Lightning and, quite frankly, another loss for the Sabres.