Jason Pominville has never struck me as the classic hockey captain. He seemed too soft and unthreatening a personality to get in his teammates’ faces and demand they be accountable every night, on every shift.
A week ago, when things were at their low point, Ville Leino said the Sabres were too nice. He said it might be healthy if they challenged each other a little more. Intended or not, it reflected poorly on the captain.
My captain would be in the mold of Chris Drury or Michael Peca, or the most revered of all, Mark Messier. But sometimes a captain does his best leading on the ice. On Saturday afternoon, Pominville led the Sabres to their most rousing home triumph of the year, a 4-3 shootout win over the Devils.
Pominville was far from perfect, like his team. He was on the ice for all three New Jersey goals, including a game-tying tally midway through the third. Still, he persevered, scoring two goals and wiring the puck past Johan Hedberg on the opening shootout try for the game-winner.
It was about time he found the score sheet. Coming into the game, Pominville had produced just one point (a goal) in his last 11 games. Not the most inspiring performance from the captain during a turbulent three-week stretch that cost Lindy Ruff his job after 16 years as the coach.
Pominville reluctantly agreed that his offensive drought had begun to bother him.
“Yeah, when you lose, it wears on you,” he said. “[Scoring] is an area where I know I can contribute. To be honest, it was one of those weird slumps. I don’t think my play has slipped at all, but I had trouble getting on the board.
“When you win,” he said, “you don’t really think about it, because it puts a smile on everyone’s face. Even tonight, how can you not be happy about the result? Everyone in the building was standing on their feet. It’s three in a row for us.”
The standard is low these days, to be sure. But the Sabres won three in a row for the first time all season. They’re 3-2 under interim coach Ron Rolston. During the third period and overtime, the First Niagara Center crowd was more emotionally engaged than it had been all season.
Maybe that’s because the Sabres played with evident passion. Steve Ott fought David Clarkson 27 seconds into the game. Patrick Kaleta was his typically pestilent self, luring Ilya Kovalchuk into a couple of penalties. Nathan Gerbe and Tyler Ennis played big (with Ruff gone, is it still acceptable to say they played “out of character?”)
“It’s definitely a lot more fun when you make it feel like a home game instead of road,” Ott said. “The building came alive in the third period. It’s an understatement to say how much energy you get from loud fans who want to cheer for you. They’ve been waiting for this.”
Now we’ll see if it carries over. As Ott said, the Sabres still have a long way to go. They dug themselves a big hole. Until they prove otherwise, they’re a bad team fighting its way to average. We’ve been here. For years, this team has been one of the biggest teases in pro sports.
The Sabres are still a defensively shaky squad, one that leads the NHL in shots allowed per game. They make too many dumb mistakes. They lead the league in second-period goals allowed. They’re too reliant on their goalie, Ryan Miller, and their first line. Their power play stinks.
At least they showed signs of resiliency during the last three games. Twice in a row, they failed to hold a third-period lead, giving the opposition a point in the standings. The Sabres have been mentally fragile in recent years. Maybe they’re learning to crack but not shatter.
“We used to be the team that flinched first,” Pominville said. “Now we don’t flinch first. We stick with it and it leads to us having success. Confidence is a huge issue. Once you win games, you get confidence. You feel better about your game and where the team’s at.”
It had to feel good to do it without their star wing, Thomas Vanek, who missed the game with an upper-body injury. Cody Hodgson and Pominville raised their games in Vanek’s absence. Hodgson made terrific plays to set up both Pominville goals, one of them short-handed.
Ultimately, a leader has to be an offensive force. Pominville is a solid, accountable, two-way player, the kind Ruff admired.
He doesn’t care if he doesn’t fit the public’s image of the snarling hockey captain.
“Absolutely not,” Pominville said. “But what makes me laugh is it comes from people who have no idea what goes on in the room. It comes from people who are outside. How would you know? No one has a clue except the guys who are in here. Even Drury, how would you know if he was that way or not? When Lindy made me captain, he said I was Drury-like to him.”
Winning changes a lot of perceptions. The Sabres are in danger of missing the playoffs for the second time in two years with Pominville as captain. They’ve been soft, fragile and wildly inconsistent. They’ve been accused of poor effort and lack of passion. They’ve gotten the coach fired.
Fair or not, that reflects on the captain. We’ll find out in late April just how good a captain Pominville has been.