Daniel Paille was a big hit. Just ask Patrice Brisebois, who crumpled into the boards. Or Andrei Kostitsyn, who was flat on his back before sitting doubled over on the bench. If you need more convincing, just ask Paille's coach, who said the forward was the Buffalo Sabres' best player in their season-opening win.
"Danny did a great job for us," Lindy Ruff said. "He really kind of led the way."
Paille certainly stood out in Friday's 2-1 shootout victory over Montreal. He had a team-high four hits, including two that knocked the Canadiens on their ear (and other body parts). Fans liked seeing it, but no one enjoyed it more than Paille.
It wasn't just the impacts he delivered that made his endorphins flow. What was important was the more he felt the crunch of others, the more he felt like his old self again.
The 24-year-old was a one-man hit parade back in junior hockey. The Ontario Hockey League voted him its best body-checker and its hardest worker.
"Back then it was awesome, just having that feeling to hit somebody," Paille said Saturday. "It's just something I take a lot of pride in. It's basically a battle of who wants the puck more. I definitely don't want to lose that puck."
But as Paille advanced at the pro level, the hits were missing. As is often the case, the timeline traces back to a pair of injuries. He broke his jaw at the start of the 2005-06 season, which forced him to lose weight. When he returned to the lineup, he cracked a rib.
He compensated for the ailments by avoiding collisions. Problem was, he got too accustomed to playing without contact.
"It kind of changed my style of game," Paille said. "I tried to adjust a little differently. I felt better and better about the [scoring] chances, but the hits were getting less."
Ruff noticed. The coach sat Paille down last year at the end-of-season meetings and told the left wing he needed to be more physical. Paille bulked up his upper body over the summer, and the muscle came in handy Friday.
"In the end you feel better with your style of play," Paille said. "It felt like my old self again [Friday] night, so I was really happy about it."
The scoring chances Paille liked while playing a less-physical game shouldn't dissipate now that the hits have returned. He and his linemates, Jochen Hecht and Jason Pominville, combined for 11 shots against the Canadiens.
"The way he played [Friday] night, he could have easily gotten rewarded with a couple goals," Pominville said. "If he keeps doing that, I'm sure he will get on the score sheet pretty soon."
As the Sabres' second scoring line, the trio is expected to produce. Paille loves his boost in status after playing on the third line last season, and he figures they will get plenty more opportunities.
"It was exactly what I expected," he said. "The points will come, but we had a lot of chances. I was real happy playing with them."
If Paille plays the same way Monday in the Sabres' first road game, the New York Islanders won't be happy at all.
"His effort was something that was a great example for other guys," Ruff said. "He put their defense in some bad situations almost every time he was on the ice."