It was certainly not the most entertaining victory of the season, but the Canadiens somehow managed to pull out a 3-2 win against the Sabres in Buffalo on this evening. After putting forth two of their worst periods of hockey all year, Montreal managed to come out in the third with an inspired effort and once again managed to win a game late.
Buffalo opened the scoring early on the power play after Andrei Markov was sent off for… blowing, shall we say, on his opponent unjustly. It was Rory Fitzpatrick whose precise, low drive beat Yann Danis and sent the home squad up by one.
The one line that seemed to make the most of its presences this evening was the fourth line consisting of THomas Plekanec, Chris Higgins, and Alex Perezhogin. The latter evened the score after a short spell from a superb pass from Markov who’d jumped into the rush. Perezhogin’s precise shot left Matheiu Biron with no chance.
One issue Claude Julien will be bringup up with his troops is the parade to the penalty box. Too many times the team took undisciplined penalties and they routinely put themselves in a precarious position.
Another issue concerns line changes. Disturbingly often tonight Montreal seemed down a few men on the ice as players strolled to the bench. This problem was part of the reason Buffalo went up by one early in the second.
Sheldon Souray, while retrieving the puck in his own end, blindly tossed it up the boards, assuming that his winger would be there to retrieve the puck and clear the zone. It was a large error by Souray for not noticing the empty boards, but it was also a gaffe from the players making the change. Ales Kotalik picked up the puck on the side boards, and a quick pass later saw Adam Mair lonely in front of Danis. He only had to redirect the puck into the yawning cage for Buffalo’s second of the game.
The rest of the second was a trial of suffering for the fans. The Canadiens looked brutally lethargic and, combined with Buffalo’s obvious improvement after their thrashing at the hands of the Senators 10-4, Montreal couldn’t create a thing. After the second was done, the Habs first line had created a chance or three, while the second and third lines had created nothing. The fourth line, while being used sparingly, was still the best to this point.
In fact, the only serious scoring chance came on a power play when Alex Kovalev picked up a loose puck at the side of the Buffalo net and fired directly into Biron’s glove.
Presumably Julien opened a can of whip-buttock during the second intermission, because the Canadiens came out looking like they were ready to play a hockey game in the third. The snap in their passing and vigour in their game which had been completely absent for two periods, suddenly was back – and it improved as the period moved along.
While firing 18 shots on Biron, the visitors finally looked like a team ready to compete, and they scored early when Michael Ryder, on easily the second line’s best shift all night, took the puck behind the Buffalo net and curled out front before whipping it under the Sabres goalie. Three times on the play, Francis Bouillon had kept the puck in at the point to keep the play alive.
After that, it seemed that Montreal was able to attack wave upon wave at the Sabres goal. Saku Koivu split the defence and his pass to Kovalev was only just touched by a Sabre defender or the score could easily have been three.
Shortly thereafter it was Markov again jumping in during a penalty killing situation and his pin-point pass to Higgins led to a first time shot where Biron had to be vigilant.
With less than three minutes remaining, on a very innocent looking play, Niklas Sundstrom scored the winner. As the fourth line dominated a shift, the puck was kept in at the point and Steve Begin turned and fired a low shot at the net from almost the blueline. It hit Sundstrom’s stick in front and deflected high over the already down Biron to lift the Canadiens to an improbably victory.
It’s all to do over tomorrow night as Buffalo comes to Montreal for the rematch in this home-and-home series. Suffice it to say that Julien will do everything in his power to ensure the boys come out ready for that one.