By Tim Schmitt
Saunter past the locker of Paul Gaustad following a Sabres home game and you won’t hear much.
At 6-foot-5 and more than 220 pounds, Gaustad seems a quiet giant. Subdued. Almost stoic.
His numbers don’t exactly come screaming off the stat sheet, either. The five he’s posted in the goal column appears adequate for a guy who’s often relegated to the fourth line — until you realize he hasn’t lit the lamp since before Thanksgiving. Outside of a six-game stretch in November, Gaustad’s batting a goose egg.
To be underwhelmed by Gaustad’s stat line, however, is to miss the value he brings to a team that proved convincingly with Saturday’s 4-1 victory that it deserves to be called the Eastern Conference’s best. Lindy Ruff assumed out of training camp that the Sabres needed a mucker with Adam Mair and Andrew Peters on the fourth line.
And that’s where Gaustad belongs, right? The fourth line is good work for seventh-round draft choices, especially for those who had just 17 goals in the first two years in the Western Hockey League. Any work that includes a jersey with a name on its back is good work for seventh-round draft choices.
Gaustad did Ruff proud, using his churning style to create chances and frustrate foes. Mair, Gaustad and a random linemate — Ruff often matched the duo with double-shifting centers Derek Roy or Chris Drury — often buzzed around the opponent’s net, but fumbled when they got in the red zone.
But just because Gaustad is quiet in press conferences doesn’t mean he’s silent on the ice. Far from it.
Gaustad is revered as a chatterbox whose legs move only slightly quicker than his jaw.
It might have been that combination of determination and chatter that snapped the Sabres from a recent offensive funk — no matter how small it was.
With Ales Kotalik struggling, Ruff called Gaustad up from the fourth line to the second, pairing him with Kotalik and Drury. The results have been astounding — Kotalik has five goals in his last six games and a hop in his step that had been absent. Gaustad has also been a tower on the power play, standing tall in front of the net while gunners like Jaroslav Spacek fire from the point.
But most important, he continued to talk.
“You can hear him in the locker or on the bench, wherever you are. He’s a talker. That’s a good thing,” Kotalik said after Saturday’s win. “It’s a sign of leadership. And I think in the future he’s going to be a leader of this organization.”
Again on Saturday, against the team with the best shot of closing in on the Sabres’ conference lead, Gaustad finished without a point. He had three shots and finished even in less than 13 minutes of play.
But to see him play at HSBC says otherwise. Gaustad popped Greg De Vries after Jason Pominville got dumped on a scoring chance. He suckered Steve McCarthy into taking a third-period penalty, shaking off the Atlanta defense after a hold and feeding Drury for a close chance.
And he later rang one off the post during the power play, missing the scoresheet by a matter of inches.
With gaudy numbers like Thomas Vanek’s 22 goals grabbing the TV time, the Sabres keep winning, and winning with style. But in Gaustad, they’ve got a secret driving force.
Secret, but certainly not silent.
Contact group sports editor Tim Schmitt at 282-2311, Ext. 2266.