Patrick Kaleta finally couldn't take it anymore. After five straight questions about the Ottawa Senators, the Buffalo Sabres' right winger was exasperated. He had tried to be diplomatic, but he'd had enough. He rocked in his seat, gave a clenched-teeth laugh and revealed his true feelings about the Senators' dominance.
"It aggravates me," Kaleta said Thursday. "I'm obviously not a fan of Ottawa."
It's hard to blame the guy. The Senators are 24-6-4 against the Sabres since the lockout, a lopsided set of numbers that comes to the fore every time Buffalo prepares to face its nemesis.
It's that time once again, hence the questioning.
The Sabres welcome the Senators to HSBC Arena tonight intent on ending an eight-game skid against the Northeast Division rivals. Of course, they were intent on stopping the drought at seven, six, five, four . . .
"You guys keep bringing it up, but it's there," coach Lindy Ruff told the media after practice. "We know we're going to have to deal with it. The only way of getting rid of it is go out and win a game."
One victory will not even the series, obviously. A win will, however, put the Sabres inches away from a division title and cement their first playoff berth in three years.
Ninth-place Atlanta lost, 2-1, in overtime to Toronto on Thursday, meaning the Thrashers can reach a maximum of 40 wins and 92 points. Buffalo has 40 wins and 90 points. Since victories is the first tiebreaker, the Sabres would take it by beating Ottawa tonight. They'd get another chance Saturday when Tampa Bay visits the arena.
"I'm going to go out there and compete," Kaleta said. "I have to get a lot better, as well as a lot of other guys on the team. We have to improve from [Wednesday], and it's going to take a lot of hard work, and that's what we're focused on."
The first-place Sabres hold a seven-point lead over Ottawa with two fewer games played. With just 10 games remaining for Buffalo and eight for the Sens, a nine-point cushion would be almost insurmountable.
"It's a chance for us to put some points between us," Sabres defenseman Toni Lydman said. "There aren't that many games left, and that would be a huge advantage going into that last road trip [in April]. It's a big game. It's also a big game as we've struggled against that team a lot over the last [five] years.
"It's time to finally have a good game against the Senators."
The Sabres have won four straight, including a 3-2 shootout comeback against Montreal on Wednesday. The Senators have surged with back-to-back shutouts after starting the month 1-7-1.
The Eastern Conference's fifth-place team hasn't given up on moving into the top three as a division winner.
"I don't think it's too big of a gap to think about," Senators center Matt Cullen told reporters in Ottawa. "Time will tell whether or not it is, but I think for us to set that as a goal isn't outrageous. If we keep that as our focus, we'll see what happens. But if we continue to play the way we are, anything can happen."
The Sabres nearly ended their slide against the Senators when Ottawa came to town Feb. 2. The teams were tied, 2-2, before Sens captain Daniel Alfredsson struck for two goals in the final minute. The Sabres were speechless or talking in whispers after the contest, but their voices are back for this one.
"If we keep thinking big, bad Ottawa is going to come beat us, that's our fault," defenseman Steve Montador said. "This is a really solid game. It's crucial for them standings-wise, as it is for us. It's important for both teams to set the tone for playoffs and beyond, but it obviously starts with the drop of the first puck in the first period."