Lindy Ruff will have an international audience during All-Star festivities next week in Dallas, and the Buffalo Sabres coach intends to make his feelings plainly known about a negative shift he has detected in the way games are being officiated.
A substantial factor in emphasizing skill and speed in the post-lockout NHL was a crackdown on obstruction fouls, but Ruff suggested the game is getting bogged down again.
"I don't think the game is being called as tight," Ruff told reporters after Thursday afternoon's practice in HSBC Arena. "There's games where, no criticism -- I guess it is a criticism; you asked me my opinion -- I think there's games where the whistle has been put away. It's just from what I see."
The reigning Jack Adams Trophy winner claimed hooks and holds aren't being punished as they had been.
"Now, you're getting a free tug at times," Ruff said. "You're getting a free paw at times."
Ruff expressed concerns the definition of a penalty could become muddled down during the home stretch and into the playoffs.
"We're going to get into the second half of the year, where everything means more, and we're going to wonder if a penalty is a penalty still," Ruff said. "I think it has to be."
Ruff was asked if he would use next week as a forum to speak out against how the games are being called.
"I'm just going to give them my opinion about where it's at," Ruff said. "That opinion, I'm hearing it from the players. [The officials are] in a tough spot, I agree, but they have to choose their path. They say they want to stick to their guns, but I think there's been a leniency that's starting to get built into games now."
Sabres forward Paul Gaustad practiced and could play tonight against the Vancouver Canucks in HSBC Arena after missing two games with a shoulder injury. Co-captain Chris Drury was given the day off to nurse various dings and is expected to play.
Ruff said defenseman Henrik Tallinder (ankle) and winger Jochen Hecht (lower body) would return after the All-Star break.
The Canucks come to town with a pair of familiar faces. Left winger Taylor Pyatt and defenseman Rory Fitzpatrick, fringe players for the Sabres last season, skate for the Northwest Division leaders.
Pyatt has 12 goals and eight assists. He tallied eight goals and three assists over a 15-game stretch in October and November, then netted one goal in his next 21 games. Fitzpatrick has one goal and one assist in 31 games.
Count Ruff among those thrilled Roberto Luongo got shipped across the continent. The Florida Panthers sent Luongo to Vancouver in a trade that included winger Todd Bertuzzi and goalie Alex Auld.
Luongo will start for the Western Conference in next week's All-Star Game. He went into Thursday night's game against the Ottawa Senators at 27-16-1 with a 2.38 goals-against average.
"You've got to work hard to get pucks by him, and if you don't get the odd-numbered situations he's a tough guy to beat," Ruff said. "We're going to be trying to get in front of him and create rebound opportunities where we can get him scrambling."
The Sabres were a much cheerier group when they showed up at HSBC Arena on Thursday, but there was wariness over getting too excited about Wednesday night's slump-busting, 6-3 victory over the Boston Bruins.
"We all know it's only one game," Buffalo defenseman Dmitri Kalinin said. "So we have to concentrate on [tonight] and put together back-to-back games. We can't stop at only one game."