What's happened to the Daniel Paille of last season? What about the Daniel Paille of, say, October? It's been a major question all season but the aggressive side of the Buffalo Sabres winger resurfaced Tuesday in Toronto with big results.
Paille scored one goal and did the dirty work on another in the first period of the Sabres' 4-1 win over the Maple Leafs. More tough, physical play along the boards from Paille & Co. will certainly be one prerequisite for a win in tonight's game against the Philadelphia Flyers in the Wachovia Center.
Paille's goal was just his sixth of the season and only his second in 22 games, a far cry from last year's 19-goal output. That kind of production led the Sabres to reward him over the summer with a contract that pays $900,000 this year and $1.35 million next year. Six goals was not what the team had in mind.
Tuesday's performance kind of came in threes for the 24-year-old. It was his third game back after three games as a healthy scratch -- and that was the third time this year coach Lindy Ruff had sat Paille down without an injury being involved.
"It's frustrating to have to sit out for sure," Paille said. "But you've got to fight through it and wait until your time comes again. You can't pout. You have to go to the next game and try to get back in. You have to forget about it, play now and see what you can do now. It's something I have to do a lot more for this team, and I did a better job of it."
Both goals Paille was involved with came on the kind of plays Ruff constantly preaches.
Paille scored Buffalo's second goal by moving his feet and driving to the net ahead of Toronto defenseman Pavel Kubina. Stick on the ice, Paille got a perfect goalmouth pass from Tim Connolly and had an easy tap-in.
"With his type of skill, he hit me right on the tape," Paille said of Connolly. "I'm just fortunate to have a guy like that passing me the puck on that play."
Buffalo's third goal came 3 1/2 minutes later as Paille crushed defenseman Jonas Frogren on the forecheck in the corner and then outmuscled center John Mitchell for the puck, moving around him to tip it to Matt Ellis for a classic grinder's goal.
Paille smiled when a questioner remarked it's the kind of play he was making regularly at the start of the season, when he was often the Sabres' best two-way forward.
"That's basically how I need to play every game," Paille said. "Finish my check and get the puck to whoever's open."
Ruff's problem with Paille this year has been simple. He wants physical players to be physical. Even if Paille isn't close to 19 goals again but is moving his feet on the forecheck and finishing checks, he's probably a staple in the lineup.
But no goals and no real aggression? Time to sit and watch.
"I can't focus on the numbers at this point," Paille said. "It's a frustration at this point but I have a different role this year and I have to stick to that. I have to play a physical game, go hard both ways."
Paul Gaustad is returning tonight from his shoulder injury and Nathan Gerbe was sent back to Portland but that doesn't mean anyone should relax. Ruff sensed his players showed far more desperation Tuesday than they did in Sunday's 3-0 sleepwalk against Carolina.
Clarke MacArthur played one of his stronger two-way games in some time. So did Paille. Ellis parlayed Paille's work into a goal. Paille played mostly with Ellis and Patrick Kaleta but also saw some time with Connolly and Ales Kotalik when Adam Mair was in the penalty box after a fight.
After the Leafs dominated for the first 10 minutes, Ruff liked what he saw from his team the rest of the way. The Sabres had a physical presence in both the offensive and defensive zones, the forwards were skating with authority and passes were crisp from stick to stick.
"Once we got our legs underneath us, I thought we skated as well as we have in a long time," Ruff said. "We skated well, drove the lanes well. We had some guys like MacArthur and Paille that really skated well.
". . . Some players are sensing there's healthy players coming back and they want to make it tough [to make lineup decisions]."
Tenth in the East just over a month ago, the Sabres moved into a four-way tie for fifth Tuesday. A win tonight could pull them within a point of the Flyers in the battle for fourth, although Philadelphia would still have two games in hand.
"It's a tight schedule and it seems like every team goes through their spurts and times that they struggle," Paille said. "Hopefully we're past that and we can keep climbing."