By Tim Schmitt
BUFFALO — Drew Stafford insisted during an involuntary one-game hiatus that he was simply waiting for an opportunity.
When it finally dropped in his lap on Tuesday, he had to wait just a little longer.
Down 3-0 and facing a 15-game scoring drought, Sabres coach Lindy Ruff tapped Stafford for a penalty shot in the second period against the reigning Stanley Cup champs. He said he wasn’t sure why. He just picked him.
But there had to be some method to Ruff’s madness. After giving Stafford the night off on Sunday in St. Louis, he’s been waiting for the team’s 2004 first-round pick to become a difference-maker. And with the Sabres already in a major hole on Tuesday, why not give the kid a chance to snap out of his skid, right?
Stafford stood in the circle and waited for officials to give him the OK. Then came a call from Toronto. The play was being reviewed.
Alone and without a goal since the day after Thanksgiving, Stafford stood at center ice as 18,000-plus waited quietly.
“I was just trying to stay focused and not psych myself out,” he said after. “There’s a lot of stuff that can be going through your head. I talked about being ready, and you’re not going to get an opportunity any better than that.”
When he finally got a chance to streak in on Marc-Andre Fleury, Stafford swept the puck across to avoid a possible poke check, like one Fleury pulled when the two teams met earlier this year. Instead of fully collecting it, though, Stafford snapped a quick wrister, hoping to find the five-hole.
And just like that, Stafford traded in the title of coldest Sabre and started a new streak.
He admitted he didn’t get everything on the shot, but when you haven’t seen the red light for more than a month, there’s no getting finicky.
“It went in. I’ll take it,” he said. “Something was going in my favor tonight. I’ll take it.”
“Then it was a good fan, that’s the way I look at it,” Ruff joked when told Stafford admitted he didn’t get good wood on the shot. “I’ve seen guys that don’t fan and don’t score. It’s great of him to fess up that he might have fanned a little bit, but I thought it was a hell of a shot.”
Later, Stafford added another, one in which he fired the puck on net, then followed up and cashed in on his own rebound. It’s the kind of play Ruff’s been waiting patiently for Stafford to make, but hasn’t seen enough of in recent efforts. Had he driven hard to the net like that the past few weeks, Stafford wouldn’t have watched from the press box in St. Louis.
“Benching a player’s never easy. But at the same time, it’s all about what you come back with. It’s the response after being benched,” Ruff said. “He was our best player tonight, which is good.”
The response was exactly what Ruff had hoped for. Stafford said he wasn’t about to feel sorry for himself, and that the bounces just went his way on Tuesday. He insisted it was just fate that gave him two goals on the next start after a healthy scratch.
But you sense that Ruff, a master at getting young players to grasp his lessons, had more of a hand in it than fate.
“He said he was really motivated. You’ve got to stay motivated without being benched. That’s a hard lesson. But his answer was a quality response in a situation like that,” Ruff said.
“I think that’s the type of player he can be. We just need that every night.”
Contact sports editor Tim Schmitt at 282-2311, ext. 2266.