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Soft Sabres show little outrage after Miller gets run

Lindy Ruff was visibly upset after the win. His goalie, Ryan Miller, had been knocked out of the game by Scott Gomez behind his own net. Ruff felt the hit was deliberate. Miller was limping around with a sprained ankle and the Sabres' coach had no idea how long his franchise player would be out.

But Ruff said he wasn't angry with his players for failing to retaliate against the Rangers. He called it a Catch-22. If the Sabres had jumped Gomez, or gone after New York goalie Henrik Lundqvist, they would have given the Rangers power plays and endangered their lead.

Aren't some things more important than the final score, I asked?

"Playoffs are important," Ruff said. "Very important. And I'm as mad as you are."

Well, if Ruff wasn't upset with his players, he should have been. In hockey, some things are bigger than the score, or getting two points in a playoff race. Sometimes, a team needs to stand up and tell the world that enough is enough, and that they will not allow anyone to take liberties with their goaltender.

But it's been happening a lot lately, and we've yet to see an emphatic response. On Saturday night, Gomez ran over Miller's ankle behind the net. He ran the franchise goalie, the team's MVP, the single biggest reason they're in favorable playoff position at the moment. Without Miller, they're in 12th.

The response: nothing.

Ruff was irate on the bench. The guys on the ice acted as if Gomez had sent Miller a pajama-gram. There was no sense of outrage or anger. That's the problem with this team, and why it's hard to take it seriously as a Stanley Cup contender.

Whenever the Sabres face a physical challenge, their soft, finesse personality exerts itself. How long have we been witnessing this sort of thing? How many times have teams taken liberties with Buffalo goalies and skated away without paying a price? The last time it happened, Rob Ray was still active and Dominik Hasek was in goal.

OK, so they didn't have the toughest group on the ice at the time. So what? It's not as if Gomez is the ultimate fight champ. The situation begged for someone to respond. Miller crawled back to his crease with a sprained ankle. That sight alone should have inspired someone to skate the length of the ice and level Lundqvist.

"It's hockey," Gomez said. "It wasn't a cheap shot by any means. It was an accident that happened."

Oh, really? Ruff said it was deliberate. What were the players thinking? Miller is their teammate. He puts it on the line every night. You don't wait for the medical report. You reply with fists and fury. You send a message. Unless you're the Sabres.

This was the Rangers, Chris Drury's team. There's a heightened sense of drama when Drury comes to town. Sorry to dredge up the past again, but wasn't it Drury who questioned the Sabres' physical courage after his last game in Buffalo, with blood streaming down his face?

So the Rangers run Miller and they turn the other cheek? It's not as if this is new. Teams have been buzzing Miller's crease for the last month. It's become a strategy against the Sabres. Disrupt Miller. Try to get him off his game. Ruff suggested as much in his postgame comments.

"You make a good point," said Patrick Lalime, who replaced Miller and got jostled by Brandon Dubinsky on one occasion. "The last little while, they're in the crease all the time. We saw it a few times against Ottawa. There's just a free shot. The refs will have to tighten that up again."

The classic Sabres response: Let the refs take care of it. Maybe some of the softer Sabres can get their big brothers to stick up for them. Or maybe their big sisters. Something has to change if they're going to survive the physical battle of wills at Stanley Cup time. Of course, Tim Connolly could always finesse teams to death.

There's been an essential lack of toughness on the Sabres since Mike Grier and Jay McKee went out the door. There I go again, bringing up the past. When was the last time one of their defenseman put a real hurting on someone? No one is afraid to play them. Why would anyone fear this bunch after watching video of Gomez's hit?

Ruff didn't want to risk the two points. But what was the excuse when they went ahead by three goals with eight minutes left? Did it have to be 10-1 before someone took a shot at one of the Rangers and sent a message to the league?

They sent a message, all right. It came through loud and clear. Same old Sabres.

e-mail: jsullivan@buffnews.com