By Tim Schmitt
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.
He hasn’t lost his knock for provoking — as proven by a cross-check in the third from none other than May. Kaleta laughed after the game when asked how old he was when May scored against the Bruins, figured out the math and realized he was eight years old.
“You can’t think about who’s out there and who you’re playing against,” Kaleta said.
But opponents certainly know if it’s him that they’re matched up with. Kaleta finishes each and every one of his checks, and is always aggressive in his forecheck.
And while you notice Kaleta’s hits, you don’t notice the little things he does to create chances.
For example, when Paul Gaustad scored the clincher, he had a lane because Kaleta went hard, dragging Kulemin and Alexei Ponikarovsky with him.
Kaleta will never be a top-six forward. He doesn’t have to be. But in a season where players we assumed would take great leaps did little to improve, Kaleta has shown that he’s ready to assume a bigger role in the future. He’s one of seven players on the Sabres roster with a positive plus-minus.
And while he cracked the lineup with thunderous hits, Kaleta has learned there’s a time and a place to unload, and he seldom lets emotions get the best of him. Although he draws plenty of penalties, he rarely takes one in a bad moment.
The end result — don’t be afraid your Buffalo goggles are distorting your vision.
Kaleta’s a player.
There’s a reason why the local kid gave it his all on Friday, and it wasn’t just because the Sabres were keeping their playoff hopes alive.
“It’s the Leafs-Sabres rivalry. I’ve watched it growing up my whole life.”
Contact sports editor Tim Schmitt at 282-2311, ext. 2266.