Peca Taking Lead for Sabres
BUFFALO, N.Y. (AP) _ Wiry, bespectacled Michael Peca of the Buffalo Sabres is no menace in street clothes.
On the ice, the former Selke Trophy winner as the NHL’s top defensive forward has been quite a bit of trouble for the likes of Alexei Yashin, Jason Allison and Mats Sundin.
``You wouldn’t know it to look at him, but he’s probably one of the best open-ice hitters in the game,″ Buffalo center Brian Holzinger said. ``He knows how to hit people and when to hit them.″
Yashin and the Ottawa Senators were swept by the Sabres two rounds ago, and Peca kept Yashin from collecting any points.
The Boston Bruins, alluding to Peca’s smothering of Allison for much of the six-game second round, accused the Sabres captain of ``getting away with murder″ after Peca’s hit on Bruins captain Ray Bourque.
The Eastern Conference final between Buffalo and Toronto starts Sunday. Peca will zoom in on Sundin, who has four goals and five assists in the playoffs.
Peca insists the isolated matchups are lost in the big picture. ``It’s a team game,″ he said.
But every good hockey team has a virulent pest. For the Sabres, now that Matthew Barnaby is with the Pittsburgh Penguins, that job belongs to the 5-foot-11, 181-pound Peca.
``We have to play tough against him,″ said Maple Leafs defenseman Dimitri Yushkevich, who could be assigned to pester Peca while Peca dogs Sundin.
``Maybe we’ll make a couple of hits on him and see how he feels about it,″ Yushkevich said.
``We might put a big guy back in and try to pound him,″ said Maple Leafs coach Pat Quinn, who has 6-6 Chris McAllister and pugilist Tie Domi ready to go. McAllister was a healthy scratch in the Leafs’ 4-2 series win over Pittsburgh. Domi has been cleared to play after recovering from a groin injury.
It doesn’t surprise Peca that the Leafs have tried to intimidate him before he can intimidate them. But he doesn’t believe in off-ice ploys.
``Maybe they think they’re psychologists and they know how to get into people’s heads,″ Peca said Friday. ``I don’t get involved in those things. If somebody wants to take a run at me, then so be it. It’s happened before.″
Peca does a lot more than bother people. He leads the Sabres in scoring with four goals and seven assists in the playoffs, including a shorthanded goal, and his forechecking is relentless.
With Buffalo’s leading scorer Miroslav Satan day-to-day with an ankle bruise sustained in the Ottawa series, the Sabres need all the offense they can muster. Peca’s shooting and playmaking skills help.
``He gives us defense and offense,″ Holzinger said. ``That’s a good mix to have, especially in the playoffs.″
Another plus for Peca is that he’s playing healthy. Buffalo advanced to the conference finals last year, but Peca wasn’t much of a factor.
He went into the playoffs last year with a sprained knee and reinjured it in the second round. As if that weren’t enough agitation, his wedding date looked like it could collide with a possible Game 6 in the Stanley Cup finals. His teammates teased him about china patterns.
This season the Sabres look to Peca for leadership, not laughs.
``It’s a different story in this year’s playoffs because he’s matured as a player,″ said linemate Dixon Ward. ``When you look at the careers of veteran leaders around the league, you can always look back and see defining moments that catapulted them into the spotlight. This is a start for Mike in that direction.″