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Briere hit won't be last lick

All right, so I missed it. I'm no better than the NHL referees, who didn't see it, either. Apparently, we were all looking the other way Tuesday night when Daniel Briere speared Washington's Alex Ovechkin in the groin in the first period of the Sabres' 6-3 win.

There was no penalty on the play. But I'm imposing a two-minute minor on myself for being hooked -- by the Sabres' promise that they wouldn't seek physical retribution against Ovechkin for running Briere from behind when he was skating to the bench in early December.

Briere had said before the game that it was over with Ovechkin, that he couldn't waste his energy trying to get even on the ice. Yeah, sure. He was lying through that elfin smile of his. With about seven minutes left in the opening period, Briere reached out his stick and jabbed Ovechkin in his privates as he was circling out of the Sabres' end.

By Wednesday, the Briere hit was being played over and over on the sports cable shows and the Internet. For once, there was a national fuss over spears and it didn't involve Britney. But, predictably, the Sabres acted as if it were no big deal.

"It's over with as far as I'm concerned," said enforcer Andrew Peters.

"They're looking for a mountain in a molehill," said coach Lindy Ruff. "I could show you two or three two-handed slashes that are worse than a little push with the stick. It's a non-issue with me."

"I don't think it was much," Briere said. "I've got no explanation. I've got no comments. I get shots like that every game and it's no big deal."

Briere was awfully evasive for someone who didn't think it was a big deal. He's one of the most engaging, articulate Sabres. But he set a career high in "no comments" Wednesday. Briere sounded like a player who felt the NHL violence police peering over his shoulder.

The hit on Ovechkin was no felony. But it wasn't "nothing," either. Nothing is when a fly buzzes your cheek, or when you bump your elbow on a desk. Give someone a hockey stick and let him jab it into your groin, then tell me it's nothing.

"Oh, maybe Danny was trying to send a little message," Ruff said. "But there was really nothing there, except for them trying to make it look worse than it actually was."

Winning is an effective method of retaliation. But clearly, Briere felt a more forceful message needed to be sent. For all its skill and speed, hockey is still a violent, physical game. Little men are convenient targets, and sometimes it's up to the little guy to make sure that a cheap shot does not go unpunished.

As a kid, Briere idolized Pat LaFontaine. Like LaFontaine, he has great skill and an engaging personality. But like Patty, he can be chippy when he needs to be on the ice. A lot of hockey's great little men were that way, by necessity.

So it was naive to think Briere wouldn't be looking to get a shot in at Ovechkin. He said it was over. But it's never over. The Flyers said it was over after Brian Campbell's hit on R.J. Umberger in the playoffs last spring. In the next game, the Philly players gooned it up in an 8-2 loss and Ken Hitchcock told Ruff to mind his bleeping business.

That's hockey. It's a sport that thrives on villains and rivalries. The NHL needs recognizable characters who get people's blood boiling. Ovechkin is just that sort of guy. He could become the most reviled Buffalo villain since Bryan Cox was flipping off Bills fans. Maybe the Capitals could supplant the hapless Flyers as the team Sabres fans love to hate.

If the season ended today, the Sabres and Caps would meet in the first round of the Stanley Cup playoffs. Imagine Ovechkin skating onto the HSBC Arena ice in the springtime, when the stakes and emotions are further heightened.

Over? It could be just beginning.

e-mail: jsullivan@buffnews.com

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