BOSTON - Diminutive Buffalo Sabres rookie Tyler Ennis laughed off his rude introduction to the NHL’s fierce, relentless postseason - a thump over the boards from hulking defenseman Zdeno Chara - early in the Eastern Conference quarterfinal.
When the 6-foot-9 Chara knocked the unsuspecting, 5-foot-9, 163-pound winger onto the Boston Bruins bench as the first period ended in Game 2, the veteran sent a loud message: this ain’t a regular game, kid. We’re coming.
The 20-year-old Ennis’ reply? No kidding.
“He was actually laughing,” coach Lindy Ruff said Sunday at HSBC Arena after the Sabres, down 3-2, prepared for tonight’s do-or-die Game 6 (MSG-TV, WGR, WMXO, 7 o’clock).
“It really wasn’t much (of a hit) at all. He came off laughing. I think that just sums up the type of kid he is. He won’t be intimidated.”
The Sabres face elimination for the second time in four days back at TD Bank North Garden. Without the vital contributions from Ennis and several other fearless, slick rookies, their season could already be over.
Ruff acknowledged he’s never leaned on rookies so much at such a critical juncture. The neophytes are so good, however, Ruff has no other option.
® Ennis’ four points - a goal and three assists - tops the Sabres through five games. He’s averaging 17:05 of ice a game, three minutes more than captain Craig Rivet.
® Workhorse Tyler Myers, as everyone knows, is already one of the league’s best defenseman. He’s skating a whopping 27 minutes a night, the sixth-highest total in the playoffs.
® Center Tim Kennedy plays 15:10 a night in every situation. He’s one of five Sabres with at least a goal and two points.
® Desperate for offense, the Sabres summoned Nathan Gerbe from Portland last week. The 5-foot-5 winger assisted on a goal during his first shift in Game 5. He played 15:06 and skated on the second power-play unit. The Sabres sat veteran Raffi Torres, their big deadline-day acquisition, to dress Gerbe.
RUFF’S SEEN each rookie’s confidence grow throughout the series.
“They’re playing on a heck of a stage for the first time,” he said. “Even Tyler Myers started off pretty slowly in the series but has gained confidence as this series has gone on, and I think Tyler Ennis has been the same case.”
Sabres goalie Ryan Miller added: “They’ve been good. They’ve come up and contributed. I think what’s been great has been their attitude. They’re unafraid to play their game, and I think it’s pretty unique for a rookie.”
Ennis showcased his quick, plucky style Friday in the Sabres’ 4-1 win, trying to climb Chara and scoring an empty-net goal.
“He took a run at Chara the last game,” Ruff said. “It led to a great scoring chance by (Jason) Pominville in front of the net. The kid just plays.”
Chara’s earlier hit wasn’t on Ennis’ mind.
“It didn’t deter me in any way,” Ennis said. “It’s a part of the game, you know? It just made me excited and want to battle more. We’ve been matched up against him quite a bit. It’s been a battle and it’s been pretty fun.”
Later, Ennis zoomed to a loose puck, dove and swept it in.
Just 15 games into his career, Ennis is starting to feel like a veteran.
Postseason hockey can develop players rapidly.
“Every day I’m learning something new,” Ennis said. “Every game I’m learning something on the ice, off the ice, different situations. I think every day I’m getting more confident.”
That’s prepared Ennis and the other rookies well for their future.
“Any time you can play in the playoffs in such a tight series like that,” Ennis said, “I think it is a great learning experience. It builds character. It builds a lot of things. It’s definitely a positive.”
MILLER CALLED tonight’s win-or-go-home tilt “another hockey game.”
“Keep doing it until they tell us we can’t do it anymore,” he said. “It’s just been the attitude I’ve been trying to take all year. Put everything out there and do it the same way, intensity. It’s appropriate intensity. “I’m not going to sit here and bash my head at the wall,” he said. “It’s 3-2. It’s a series. It’s not ideal by any means.”
GERBE, a Boston College legend, has played big games at TD Bank North Garden before.
“None as big as this one,” Gerbe said. “I don’t think the Beanpot (Championship) compares to the Stanley Cup playoffs here. So they’ll be some nerves out there. It’s all going to be good nerves, so it’s very exciting.”
NOTES: After staying off the ice Saturday, the Sabres practiced about 50 minutes Sunday. … Bruins center Marc Savard (concussion) still hasn’t been cleared to play. He has another neuro-psych examination today. He’s doubtful for tonight.