Niagara Gazette

Pro Sports

March 28, 2009

SCHMITT: Upside to down season — Kaleta’s emergence

BUFFALO — Like a guy who’s blinded by his alma mater when filling out NCAA brackets, keeping objectivity when it comes to a pro athlete who grew up in our neck of the woods is anything but easy.

The instinct is to pull for our kids, the operative work being “our.” In high school, the southtowns are the enemy, but by the time they reach the National Hockey League, you feel so attached it’s like they grew up in your cul-de-sac, stealing popsicles out of your freezer after some street hockey.

That’s why putting a value on Patrick Kaleta’s play is such a tough proposition. Kaleta wows you with his big knocks — like the one he laid on Niolai Kulemin in the third period of Buffalo’s 5-3 win on Friday. He endears himself with a relentless backcheck if his teammates are caught up ice.

Add in the fact that he’s our guy — a kid who went to St. Francis and remembers jumping up and down at his aunt’s when Brad May scored his famous “May Day” goal in 1993 — and it’s impossible not to love the guy, right?

Bias aside, Kaleta is becoming a legitimate National Hockey League player right before our eyes. Once known as just an agitator, the local kid now fills a variety of roles for a team that’s cast is pretty vanilla. Penalty killer, energy guy, defensive forward — Kaleta has clearly gained the confidence of Lindy Ruff.

Need proof? With the team fighting for its playoff life, and questions starting to quietly seep in on the coach and general manager’s stranglehold on their jobs, Kaleta played a season-high 14 minutes and 34 seconds on Friday, getting consistent shifts as the Sabres tried to hold off the surging Leafs in the third.

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