Minutes after the Sabres’ worst loss of the season, Steve Ott took a leading role in the Buffalo dressing room. He’s followed that by commanding attention on the ice.
The Sabres welcome Toronto to First Niagara Center tonight with one of the NHL’s prime agitators excelling in several areas. Ott has nine points in the last 10 games, is winning faceoffs at a league-leading rate and continues to infuriate opponents. It’s what folks expected when the Sabres acquired Ott from Dallas for Derek Roy last summer, but it took a little while.
Ott’s season turned in mid-February. After the 2-1 loss to Winnipeg on Feb. 19, a no-show debacle that cost Lindy Ruff his coaching job the next day, Ott noticed a pack of television cameras heading toward captain Jason Pominville in the neighboring stall. The forward stood up and said Pominville had spoken enough about the team’s struggles. Ott said plenty of other players were responsible for the early season slide and urged those with microphones to find someone else to question.
“It was probably 15 consecutive days that the poor guy was getting hounded,” Ott said Wednesday. “There’s 20 guys that have accountability in this dressing room, and every single guy deserves an interview. You don’t always have to go to your top leader on your team, your captain, for the simple fact we all lead in our own ways. We’re all in this together.”
Pominville appreciated the gesture.
“For him on that night to take my spot, it was nice of him to do that, for sure,” Pominville said. “I expect I’ll get asked a lot of questions. I’m not complaining about it. For me what’s frustrating is when other guys aren’t in the room.”
Ott’s been conspicuous since that day. His approach turned the spotlight on him, and it hasn’t turned off. His game under interim coach Ron Rolston has a lot to do with it.
Rolston, who took over against the Maple Leafs on Feb. 21, has used Ott an average of 19:51 per night. That’s a three-minute bump from the 16:49 of ice time Ott got under Ruff.
“He’s earned that because he’s played consistently well and done the same things, so you know what you’re getting every night,” Rolston said.
Ott has done more in the minutes, too. He has nine points in Rolston’s 13 games after recording seven points in the opening 17 outings. Moved to the first line with Pominville and Cody Hodgson against Montreal on Tuesday, Ott responded with two goals, including the winner in overtime.
“It’s a treat because those guys are so highly skilled,” Ott said. “When you get those opportunities, you try to make the best of them.”
Rolston has also given the left winger more responsibilities in the faceoff circle. Ott took 8.1 draws per game under Ruff and won 53.6 percent. Ott is taking 11.3 faceoffs per night under Rolston and is winning 62.7 percent.
Boston’s Patrice Bergeron leads the NHL at 61.9, and Ott is tied for seventh at 58.4.
“It’s just more or less of earning your keep and earning your ice time,” Ott said. “We all want to go out there and perform and get the opportunities to do your certain role and excel at it.”
Though Ott says he was comfortable upon his arrival in Buffalo after nine seasons in Dallas, his play and attitude suggest he’s really grown into his new jersey lately.
“It’s putting the sweat and tears into that thing and the battles,” he said. “Until you get a mark on your jersey, you can say you haven’t really earned the respect from your teammates in this dressing room or earned it from your community and your fans.”
Despite their 13th place standing, Ott is not giving up on the Sabres.
“Our last game of the year, that will be the judge,” Ott said. “If we’re a playoff team, that’s my expectations of this team. That hasn’t changed. We’ve got some work cut out ahead of us, but by all means it’s in our grasp.
“Since the changes have occurred, I think we’ve continued to get better. … By the end of all this stuff, if we continue to grow and continue to get better, I like the success of this team.”