Want to know the difference between what the Buffalo Sabres are and what they are supposed to be?
Look no further than the St. Louis Blues.
The Blues and Sabres got great plays from their great players Sunday, but the Blues backed their talent with a ton of character and hard work that paid off in a 5-3 victory.
Buffalo made an effort, but even coach Rick Dudley acknowledged only about 15 of his 20 players really showed up. The Blues were 20 men strong.
"We don't do anything fancy," said Brett Hull, who scored two goals, including the winner less than two minutes into the third period. "We've got the style that's perfect for road hockey. We grind and plug and forecheck well and we play for each other; that's the big key to our success."
Hull, of course, doesn't grind, plug or forecheck. The finest goal scorer in the NHL really does just that. He knows it. His team knows it. He does, however, play for his teammates and they for him.
"I go out and try to do the best I can every night," Hull said. "If I'm going to help the team, I have to go out and score goals. That's what it's all about for me. I don't do a lot else good so I just go out there and do what I do to try and help the club."
The beauty of St. Louis' game is that the rest of the team accepts that and goes about filling in whatever else is needed.
Hull spent nearly all of his post-game interview time explaining that. He singled out the determined play of Adam Oates as the reason the Blues won. Oates had a goal and an assist in his first game back after missing 18 games with an unspecified muscle injury. Hull also credited the muckers and grinders who played much of the game in the Buffalo end once St. Louis took the lead.
Buffalo had been in yet another see-saw battle, getting goals from Mike Ramsey, Pierre Turgeon and Dale Hawerchuk to offset scores by Geoff Courtnall, Oates and Hull.
But the third period belonged to St. Louis. Hull went end to end to score his second goal of the game and league-high 33rd of the season. The Blues, despite having played at Toronto the night before, kept the Sabres off the board the rest of the way and even outshot them in the deciding period, 11-10 (and 37-29 for the game). St. Louis sealed it with an empty-net goal from Bob Bassen.
The Blues were consistent, the Sabres were not and they fell to their fifth straight loss and fourth straight home defeat.
The Sabres got some big plays from their big guns. Turgeon had a goal and an assist (his first goal in more than a month and the 100th of his NHL career), and Hawerchuk's goal gave the Sabres a 3-2 lead.
But the Sabres never were in control. They weren't always outworked, but they often made mental mistakes.
"We are professional athletes and as professional athletes, I think the No. 1 part of being professional is being consistent," said Sabres winger Mike Hartman. "We can't sit in here and blame the coach. Who do you blame? You've got to look in the mirror and blame yourself. I made mistakes, everyone made mistakes, but other teams take advantage of those mistakes. Mistakes are why you lose one-goal games."
Hartman didn't try to take himself off the hook. He blamed himself for a mistake that led to a Soviet win here Wednesday, and he admits to making several others. He tried to make amends in this game, however.
St. Louis had just tied the game, 3-3, late in the second period. Oates, following up after Doug Bodger had run Geoff Courtnall off the puck with a nice check along the boards, cruised untouched down the right wing and cranked a shot that hit Sabres goaltender Clint Malarchuk and carried into the net. Hartman, unhappy about the goal, decided to knock Blues captain Scott Stevens onto the seat of his pants. A brief melee ensued and Stevens, who spent all of his time trying to get back at Hartman, received two minutes for unsportsmanlike conduct, a 10-minute misconduct and a game misconduct.
It was thought the Sabres might get a lift from having the Blues' best defenseman ejected. Instead, St. Louis sent Hull down the ice on an end-to-end rush at the start of the third period for the decisive goal. And he was never touched.
"Turgeon went down and Vinnie (goaltender Vincent Riendeau) made a hell of a save on the breakaway," Hull said. "I picked the puck out of the corner and I had a lot a room. A ton of room. I crossed the blue line and took a shot. As long as you shoot the puck and hit the net it's bound to go in sometime."
His went in without a forward even getting in the way of his advance up the ice.
"I think they were trying to get a (line) change," said the diplomatic Hull. "I think everyone was looking to change and I just went down the ice and I had a ton of room."
After that, the St. Louis grinders didn't give Buffalo any.