A storybook start had devolved into a forgettable month. The mighty Buffalo Sabres had enjoyed some magical moments through the first quarter of the season, but they hit the road one game above .500 for December and giving indications a full-blown slump could be in the works.
The offense was sputtering, the power play inert. Those rollicking routs seemed so long ago.
What a reminder Thursday night turned out to be. The Sabres crushed the Nashville Predators, 7-2, in front of a Gaylord Entertainment Center crowd of Ales Kotalik, Jason Pominville and Maxim Afinogenov all scored twice, and Toni Lydman's first goal in 95 games stood as the winner in Buffalo's first game with four or more goals in a month.
"We know they're a good team and play well at home," Afinogenov said. "We tried to jump on them in the first period. The puck was going in. We got a couple on the power play. It feels really good for us."
But the night wasn't all fun for the Sabres. Predators center Scott Nichol sucker-punched defenseman Jaroslav Spacek with 4:39 left in the game, touching off a donnybrook in which goalie Martin Biron rained punches down on Nichol in the pileup.
"You can't do that," Sabres coach Lindy Ruff said calmly. "I'm sure the league will take a look at it. I'm not going to rant and rave, but there's no place for it."
Spacek had guided Nichol hard into the goal cage for an interference penalty and then turned away at the whistle. But the former Sabre, begging for a suspension, got up and delivered a bareknuckle right to Spacek's chin, then yanked him backward by the collar. Spacek appeared to lose consciousness, but said he felt fine after having X-rays to find out if his jaw was broken.
"It was a cheap shot," Sabres winger Jochen Hecht said. "Spacek never saw it coming. [Nichol] just punched him in the jaw. It was a really bad cheap shot that I've never seen anything like.
"I don't want to say how many games [Nichol] should be suspended. That's up to the league. But it was from behind. It was after the whistle. It should be a good suspension."
Nichol, the same player who delivered the legal, knockout check that kept Tim Connolly out the entire 2003-04 season, was unavailable to comment.
"I want to finish the game, but I'm happy," Spacek said. "I'm healthy and we returned to our winning ways. We scored seven goals against a good team in a tough building."
Nichol's outburst put the Sabres on a power play for the rest of the game. Kotalik and Pominville scored. Buffalo hadn't had multiple power-play goals in a game since Nov. 22.
The Sabres improved their league-leading road record to 15-3, bouncing back from their first set of back-to-back losses (both at home) with a resounding triumph over the Central Division leaders.
"We knew we needed to start strong. We did and we followed through," Biron said. "That was big for us. The guys knew we needed a big game, and they responded."
Biron made 29 saves in his first start since mid-November. He has faced live fire only twice since Nov. 17.
Predators goalie Chris Mason, meanwhile, was making his 14th consecutive start in place of injured star Tomas Vokoun. Mason had been living up to his name as a brick wall, posting a. 960 save percentage in winning five straight.
The Sabres imploded him. After two periods and 21 saves, Mason was pulled for Michael Leighton, who was with the Sabres last season but never got into a game.
"If you give a team like that time to do what they want, they're going to kill you," Mason said. "We got killed."
For the second straight game, Kotalik gave the Sabres a lead before the echoes of the national anthem had faded. Brian Campbell flung the puck toward the net from along the wall at the blue line. Kotalik, at the top of the circle, redirected it through Mason's legs with the game 33 seconds old, one tick quicker than the one he scored Tuesday night.
Pominville scored at 5:43. He shot along the goal line, slipping a shot between the near post and the crook of Mason's right knee. There was no stopping the Sabres from there.