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HOLZINGER SHOULD PAY PLENTY FOR HIS CHEAP SHOT

Maybe every time Brian Holzinger returns to HSBC Arena he gets caught up chasing the ghost of Brett Hull. Maybe he can't shake from his nightmares the recollection of veering into the passing lane, taking the path of least resistance, leaving Hull undisturbed at the top of the crease to score 1999's Stanley Cup-winning goal.

Could it be that he wants to show Sabre fans and former teammates that he's no longer the non-contact player he was that night, that since being shipped to the hockey outpost of Tampa Bay last March he's added a dimension of toughness to his game?

Rather, all Holzinger proved, again, Sunday is that player respect in the National Hockey League continues to ebb and the league had best remain diligent in curtailing the cheap shots that have given rise to serious head injuries.

Holzinger got away easy the last time he was in Buffalo. He drilled J.P. Dumont from behind late in the third period and was dealt a major and a game misconduct. No suspension came his way.

"Maybe I gave him a little shove, but he turned his back at the right time," Holzinger said on Jan. 16. "It certainly was not something I tried to do on purpose."

He ought not get off with time served this time around.

Midway through the first period, Holzinger sized up Dmitri Kalinin behind the Buffalo net, cocked his elbow, left his feet and delivered a blow that dazed Kalinin. Had the elbow connected squarely, driving Kalinin's head into the unyielding seamless glass, the Sabres would be heading on their longest road trip of the season without an anchor of their defense.

"Holzinger's all of a sudden a real tough guy," Sabres coach Lindy Ruff said. "That's back-to-back games where he's hit Dumont from behind and jumped up and hit Kalinin. Maybe he doesn't want to play against us. Maybe he just wants to take a major and get out."

Ruff expects the league will automatically review the incident. Once it does, the next move is to reinforce its toughened stand on blows to the head area by issuing Holzinger a suspension. That should help get the point across, since it was apparent from Holzinger's take that he regards the incident as much ado about nothing.

"By no means did I feel the call tonight deserved five and a game," Holzinger said. "When I talked to the referee, he said the reason was because Kalinin was hurt. I don't know what the definition of being hurt is.

"Maybe he was stung a little bit but he came out on the next shift. It's not something that was intentionally done."

Kalinin did not return for his next shift. Besides, intent and degree of injury are irrelevant.

Equipment has evolved to where players take the ice outfitted like armor-covered knights. Elbow and shoulder pads are weaponry capable of inflicting heavy damage, particularly when employed against a player parked against fan-friendly but bone-jarring seamless glass, which has far less give than the partitioned glass used in Memorial Auditorium.

"I'm not going to disagree with you there," Holzinger said. "That's a concern."

Sabres defenseman Jay McKee suffered a concussion earlier this season when driven head-first into seamless glass by Montreal's Patrick Poulin, who also left his feet to deliver the hit. The incident was not captured on tape and Poulin escaped without a suspension.

"You don't get the pucks bouncing off the partitions going around the boards and obviously it doesn't obstruct the fans' view with the seamless glass, but there's no question that it's bringing up more shoulder injuries, more head injuries," McKee said earlier this season.

Injuries, particularly to the head, have caused increased concern. The league and the players' association have formed a committee to examine equipment and playing conditions. Until the recommendations are in, it behooves the NHL to protect its players by maintaining an intolerance for blows delivered above the shoulder.

Word around the Buffalo dressing room Sunday was that Holzinger's shot at Kalinin was far different than the Ben Clymer shoulder check that wiped out Jason Woolley, or Grant Ledyard's devastating shoulder hit that knocked out Vaclav Varada at center ice. The feeling was that neither check was dirty, that Woolley and Varada left themselves susceptible by easing up after making a play.

Holzinger's run at Kalinin was another matter. That was the misguided work of a player who's scored once in 28 games and desperate to have an impact.

"He's just trying to play aggressive and he doesn't know how to do it," said Sabres winger Rob Ray. "And that's why he's getting in trouble for it."

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