Between the regular season and playoffs, Brian Gionta has played 1,054 games. He’s dropped the gloves only once, so he instantly recalled the 2002 bout with Todd Marchant on Sunday. With New Jersey teammate Scott Stevens standing by, Gionta held his own against the similarly sized Marchant, an Edmonton forward and Williamsville native.
The pugilism banter began because Gionta seemed eager to put a second fight on his résumé Saturday.
During the Sabres’ 2-1 shootout victory over Pittsburgh, Gionta stood toe-to-toe and eye-to-shoulder with the Penguins’ Evgeni Malkin. The 5-foot-7 Gionta gives up 8 inches to Malkin, but he wasn’t going to give any ground after taking a spear. He twice went after Malkin with shoves, then stopped near Pittsburgh’s penalty box for verbal sparring.
“It’s part of the game,” Gionta said with a laugh in KeyBank Center. “You get into it. It was a close game, and that’s what happens.”
Gionta wants to see more of it Monday when the Sabres host Calgary. He doesn’t expect fights, of course, but he does expect tenacity throughout Buffalo’s lineup.
“What we need is to play with a little more urgency, passion,” Gionta said. “That’s all part of it, being engaged in the game.
“You see guys like Marcus Foligno blocking shots at the end of periods, end of games. That’s what we need. We need guys laying it on the line. Things can change from shift to shift with momentum, so that’s the stuff we need to play more desperate.”
The Sabres did a lot of things right Saturday in ending their six-game winless skid. The little things – Foligno blocking a shot at the buzzer, Gionta challenging Malkin – were noticed in the dressing room.
“We want to be a group that sticks together and has our backs together on the ice,” coach Dan Bylsma said. “That’s something we can be better at and need to be better at, and we were.”
The Gionta incident led to all 10 skaters on the ice getting involved. The captain has led in words, determination, attitude and work ethic during his three seasons with Buffalo, but this was new.
“That was an interesting scrum,” said right wing Kyle Okposo, a teammate of Gionta for the first time. “He’s a consummate professional. He does things the right way, and I think as a captain that’s what you have to do first and foremost. Set the best example you can, and he certainly does that.”
Like most of the Sabres, Gionta is in an offensive rut. He has no goals and one assist in his last eight games. He’s still fifth on the team in scoring with three goals and seven points.
Even with Saturday’s victory, Buffalo has been held to two goals or fewer in 10 straight games. It’s led to Bylsma talking about the need to win, 1-0. Gionta is uniquely positioned to help the Sabres through that challenge.
“I’m used to that,” Gionta said. “I grew up playing in Jersey, so that’s a recipe for success.
“He’s just saying that we need to take care of our D-zone and be on the D side of the puck and make sure that we’re not giving up odd-man rushes. You look at a game like Tampa,” Gionta said of Thursday’s 4-1 loss, “you’re trying to play run-and-gun with them and trade chances with a team like that, it’s not a recipe for success for us.
“While he’s saying win, 1-0, he’s not saying to sit back. It’s just not taking those unnecessary chances to try and force things, especially when we’re in a rut like we were.”
Gionta is always pleased when he sees the Sabres learning lessons. The organization brought him in specifically for his leadership qualities. It’s proving to be a winding road from last place to playoffs, but the captain notices when the team gets in the proper lane.
“Just to get that win, it’s good on the psyche,” Gionta said. “We’ve made huge strides since my first year. Even from last year we’ve made strides.
“We’re still continuing to grow and learn, but I think all those experiences are going to pay off. Those tough losses we’ve had, the games we’ve kind of given away on our own, those are all things you learn from. Those are how you change your culture by taking those lessons and turning them into positives.”