By Bill Hoppe
BUFFALO — For six years, Patrick Kaleta’s heard calls and insults he’s merely a talentless agitator trying to thump bodies. The Sabres winger bristles at the scorn.
The 25-year-old’s earned a regular shift for several seasons. He scored 10 goals in 55 games two years ago, four of them winners. He kills penalties.
“I know a lot of people have said I’m just a mutt, a fourth-liner; I’m just going to go out and hit,” Kaleta said Monday inside the First Niagara Center after the Sabres prepared for tonight’s tilt against the New Jersey Devils. “I take that personally. I take that as a challenge. I love challenges and I love having people say that about me because it motivates me to do even more and be even better.”
He’s been at his best during the Sabres’ 5-1-1 run, playing 34:56 during the past two games, the first time he’s ever skated more than 17 minutes in consecutive contests.
Kaleta and Paul Gaustad, an offseason workout partner, have formed a strong penalty-killing duo, helping swing momentum and bumping up Kaleta’s minutes. He’s averaging 13:40 a night this season, about three minutes more than usual.
In the Sabres’ 6-0 trouncing of Boston on Wednesday, Kaleta scored a goal, fought and laid a game-high seven hits while getting under the Bruins’ and NBC analyst Mike Milbury’s skin.
“When I watch that Kaleta … start a fight with that big shield (visor) on, it makes me want to go to the men’s room,” Milbury said during the telecast.
What’s Kaleta’s response to those harsh words?
“It just drives me to do better,” he said. “I’m worried what my guys in here think of me. I’m perfectly fine going home and throwing together a Lego set, just hanging out with my buddies. … I don’t need tons of people to like me. If they don’t, it means I’m doing my job.”
Yes, Kaleta still enjoys Legos. He loves having fun.
But what if Milbury hears that Kaleta still plays with toys?
Like it or not, Kaleta’s reputation has always superseded his talent. Officials and opponents target him. The Angola native’s a marked man.
NHL discipline czar Brendan Shanahan cited past offenses while explaining Kaleta’s four-game head-butting suspension in November. Another player likely would’ve gotten off.
Clearly, Kaleta’s cognizant he’s being watched. He’s calmed down recently and started showcasing a more responsible style.
“He’s definitely altered his game,” Sabres coach Lindy Ruff said. “I think he realizes he’s a marked man and he doesn’t get any slack one way or the other. But he’s skated well. He’s stayed away from some of these situations and he hasn’t put himself where the referee has an opportunity to make as easy call.”
Kaleta said he’s “been working non-stop on my game since the beginning of the year.”
“I had to change a little bit using my speed,” he said. “When I’m able, I can use that to my advantage, too. Overall, (I’m) just staying patient and going out there and playing hockey.”
Kaleta and Gaustad spent much of the summer working out together on and off the ice. Their chemistry illustrates it.
Ruff said the Kaleta, Gaustad and Brad Boyes combination was the Sabres’ top line during a recent stretch. Nathan Gerbe and Ville Leino have replaced Boyes in the past few days.
“That line has played well,” Ruff said. “ … You (can) go back to the difference they’ve made probably three of the last five games.”
The line sometimes faces the opposition’s best.
“We really take pride in that,” Kaleta said. “We worked hard in the summer together in trying to build a tandem out there so we know where each other are and what’s going to happen. I take pride in going out there and trying to shut down, take away the other team’s top guy.”
Eight days after breaking three ribs during practice, Ruff hopes he can go back behind the bench tonight. He’s been watching from the press box and letting assistant James Patrick run the show at ice level.
If Ruff goes back down, he’d need help.
“There’s situations there where I still can’t vocalize loud enough, especially with the crowd and react quick enough to have people ready,” Ruff said. “I think if I go back there, I’ll have James sort of in the same role.”
Ruff counted four pucks that went behind the bench Saturday. He said one hit assistant Teppo Numminen.
Would Ruff consider moving from his normal spot to the tunnel area?
“I’d like to laugh about it, but I don’t want to get hit,” he said. “At the same time, I think if I hung out by the tunnel, I’ll probably get hit. If I stay in the same spot I normally do, I won’t.”
Ruff said winger Cody McCormick (upper body) is feeling better. The winger missed practice Monday, however.
Meanwhile, concussed center Jochen Hecht underwent a neck procedure and is doing “OK.”
“We haven’t gone one way or the other yet,” Ruff said.
Hecht, who’s had three concussions in 10 months, isn’t out for the season, Ruff said.