Philadelphia Flyers agitator Scott Hartnell was running all over the First Niagara Center ice in the second period Sunday, plummeting Sabres captain Jason Pominville into the boards from behind and then nailing Tyler Ennis with another rough check.
Enough was clearly enough in Drew Stafford’s mind. The Sabres winger stepped out of character and immediately challenged Hartnell, both players tossing their sticks and helmets aside. Stafford took four or five tough rights from Hartnell at the start of the scrap, rallied some at the end and earned universal praise for it after the Sabres’ 5-2 win.
For a game-within-the-game moment, this was it. The Sabres insist they won’t be pushed around this year and here was a quick example in the first game of a new season.
“Obviously I’m not an every-day fighter kind of player,” said Stafford, who had not dropped the gloves since taking on Columbus’ R.J. Umberger on Feb. 6, 2010. “But when the time comes, I feel as though I can handle myself. It’s not something you’re going to see out of me too often. It carries over from last year. Everyone in this lineup is going to hold each other accountable to be harder to play against and that falls into that category.”
“It was important for him to stand up for a teammate,” said goaltender Ryan Miller. “It was definitely the right thing to do. It can send a message in a game that we’re here to play. They like to bump and grind and get in your face and talk a little bit. So remind them that you’re there, that’s good.”
Stafford’s locker is next to 6-foot-8 newcomer John Scott, one of the NHL’s toughest fighters. Stafford said Scott joked his teammate is trying to take his job.
Stafford admitted what he did was out of character. That’s especially true since it came against the shaggy-haired Hartnell, one of the Flyers’ tougher players.
“He’s that kind of player but at the same time it’s just the way it is,” Stafford said. “Whoever it is, it doesn’t have to be anyone in particular, you’ve got to respond. It just happened.”
“What Staff did was awesome,” said coach Lindy Ruff. “Right away. Addressed it. Didn’t wait for somebody else to address it. … Those are the type of things that bring your team together. Those are the types of things we talked about.”
Rookie Mikhail Grigorenko, the Sabres’ No. 1 draft pick, played 11 minutes, 13 seconds in his NHL debut. He had two shots on goal, went 5-4 on faceoffs, drew a penalty that led to a power-play goal and finished with a minus-1 rating.
“The first shift I was kind of nervous but I wasn’t nervous at all after the first few,” said Grigorenko, who played his most (4:15) in the third period. “It was great to have so many people here. I can really see it’s a great city to play in. People like hockey and it’s an honor to play here.”
“I thought he was steady,” Ruff said. “I probably used him about as much as I wanted to. There’s going to be an opportunity to inject him in a few other places in the coming games, but I wanted to get him through that first game and I thought he handled it well.
Longtime broadcaster Rick Jeanneret was ill and missed the opener. The Sabres issued a one-paragraph release two hours before the faceoff announcing Jeanneret’s absence. Paul Hamilton of WGR Radio stepped in to do the play by play.
A Sabres spokesman emphasized Jeanneret was not hospitalized, although his status is uncertain for tonight’s game in Toronto.
Jeanneret, who is believed to be 70, was the winner of the Foster Hewitt Memorial Award for broadcast excellence, as selected by the Hockey Hall of Fame and was honored in November.
Winger Ville Leino missed the game with the leg injury that flared up at the end of practice Friday. Ruff said it’s doubtful he’ll play tonight. Jochen Hecht took Leino’s place on the line with Grigorenko and Steve Ott, while Matt Ellis dressed and took six shifts on the fourth line.
The Danny Briere-less Flyers are 0-2 for the first time since 2008. They have led for a combined 11 minutes in the two games, are 1 for 9 on the power play and have killed only four of nine penalties.
“It’s one team I really like to beat and it’s one team I really hate to lose to,” said Ruff, whose team was 0-3-1 against Philly last year. “So I feel pretty good right now.”
Sabres players, coaches and owner Terry Pegula greeted fans in the pavilion when the gates opened, handing out programs and posing for pictures. … The Sabres improved to 24-14-4 in season openers, including 17-6-4 when opening at home. Ruff is 9-5-1 in season openers as Sabres coach. … Many fans were surprised they could not buy beer when they entered the building until noon had passed because of New York State law. The no-beer-before-noon ban will also apply for the Feb. 17 game against Pittsburgh, which is the season’s other 12:30 p.m. start. … The crowd of 19,070 was the Sabres’ 32nd straight sellout. Capacity is up this year by 380 with renovations on the 200 and suite levels. The number is a tribute to the birth year of the franchise.