Defensive center goes far in first NHL stint, and narrowly missed the big dance

He has been home for about three weeks now, and Paul Gaustad reports that not one fan has asked him for his autograph.

'Nobody,' he says.

Gaustad, the former Portland Winter Hawk captain who now plays for the Buffalo Sabres, says he can walk around for days in the Portland area and not even be noticed.

'It's kinda nice,' he says.

Rewind through the past couple of months, and Gaustad remembers being asked for five or six autographs every time he dined out in Buffalo, N.Y.

'Kinda flattering,' he says.

Gaustad and his Sabre teammates went on quite the ride through the NHL playoffs, making it to Game 7 against Carolina in the Eastern Conference finals.

The 24-year-old Gaustad, a Beaverton High graduate, says he could not watch much of the Stanley Cup finals, Carolina vs. Edmonton, because of the sting of having been one game - one period - away from playing for hockey's ultimate prize. The Hurricanes rallied to beat Buffalo 4-2 on June 1 with three third-period goals, in part because the Sabres had four defensemen out.

'I wasn't ready to come home,' says Gaustad, who played a key role as a fourth-line, defensive center in his rookie campaign. 'We could taste it. We tried to hold on or find a way to win, but they pressed us. It was tough.'

Mentally drained, Gaustad returned to the Portland area - he owns a condominium in Beaverton - for some rest, relaxation and reflection. He has helped with the Dynasty Hockey School this week at Valley Ice Arena, and will help with the Caddies for the Cure charity golf tournament, July 21 and July 22 at Langdon Farms Golf Club. He'll work out at Going Vertical in Tigard - and skate, because he still needs to work on his speed - and take a vacation in Hawaii with his girlfriend, Jessi Marcoff.

But he cannot stop thinking about his rookie season with Buffalo. It was pretty memorable.

Mostly, Gaustad will remember the grind of it. It started in an intense training camp, where he rose from being on the bubble to somebody coach Lindy Ruff lauded for his work habits, defense and faceoff abilities. Through the last 30 games and playoffs, since February, 'we didn't have one day off,' Gaustad says.

It is, indeed, 'the Show' for hockey players, and he stayed in five-star hotels and never had to carry his own equipment bag. He got $85 per diem and rarely spent it, adding to his league-minimum salary of $450,000 per year.

His favorite cities: Chicago, Philadelphia and New York. A highlight: shopping and dining in Manhattan. The Sabres, like all pro teams, fly only charter.

He played against the league's best centers, from Sidney Crosby to Peter Forsberg, depending on his defensive skills. Still, he scored nine goals and had 14 assists, and line mates Jason Pominville (18 goals) and Thomas Vanek (25) scored more than typical fourth-line players.

Not as much tug-and-pull

Gaustad, despite his physical game, accumulated only 65 regular-season penalty minutes, his low as a pro. He led the Sabres in playoff faceoff percentage and ranked in the top five among NHL rookies in hitting stats and faceoffs (53 percent), despite playing only 15 minutes a game, maximum.

A slower skater, he kept up with the pace in the NHL, with rules that allow more offense. 'Totally different than the old tug-and-pull days,' he says. Gaustad says the power play and penalty kill become more important, and he contributed on both units in the playoffs.

In the playoffs, he remembers two players who really impressed him: Ottawa defenseman Zdeno Chara and Carolina center Rod Brind'Amour.

He marvels at how the 6-9 Chara, who stands about 7 feet on skates, can defend players with his arms and legs and long stick. 'He's amazing,' says Gaustad, who adds that Chara offered to fight him about five times in their playoff series.

'Brind'Amour is somebody I try to emulate his style - a strong two-way guy, strong on draws,' he says. And Gaustad will always remember that he was on the ice when Brind'Amour scored the decisive third goal in Game 7 of the Eastern Conference finals. 'It was the first time I felt physically sick to my stomach on the bench,' he says.

Gaustad's agent, Carlos Rojas, will be working with the Sabres on a new contract, and Gaustad hopes to someday make more than $1 million. The Sabres called Rojas last week, a good sign.

'Grinding' centers usually don't command much money, but the best make more than $1 million. Gaustad compares himself to Wayne Primeau and former Hawks Brad Isbister and Dave Scatchard. He chafes at the label of 'grinding' center, because he believes he can be more productive offensively, 'but I can't forget about other parts of my game that got me there.'

He expects the Sabres to pick up where they left off, minus the injuries. It's a young team, with an outstanding goalie in Ryan Miller (Gaustad's roommate) and playmaking co-captains in Daniel Briere and Chris Drury.

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