The Buffalo Sabres did what they could to rally back after the Habs scored three straight goals, but were ultimately thwarted thanks to some determined defensive work from the Canadiens late in the game.
Montreal took a 3-1 lead at 8:16 of the second period on a goal by Maxim Lapierre. However, the momentum gained after the rookie’s sixth of the season shifted when Buffalo’s Thomas Vanek netted his 39th with just over a minute left in the second frame.
Saku Koivu came off the bench three minutes into the third period and single handedly battled his way close enough to the net to score the 20th goal of the season. It is the first time since the 2002-’03 season that Koivu reached the 20 goal plateau. The 32-year-old is also the fifth Habs’ player to reach the mark this season.
Buffalo didn’t wait long before they made things interesting for the 21 thousand plus fans at the Bell Centre. Former Hab Danius Zubrus scored to bring the Sabres within one only four minutes after Koivu’s marker. Zubrus was a deadline acquisition for the Buffalo Sabres who wanted an experienced center with big body presence to compliment the talented, but miniscule assortment the team currently boasts.
With the Canadiens’ lead cut down to one in the third period, they and fans alike suffered some anxious moments as the high-flying Sabres team threatened to tie the game time and time again.
While the game didn’t offer a lot in terms of shots, Montreal’s output in the third isn’t something that Coach Guy Carbonneau is going to be happy about. The Habs managed only two shots on Ty Conklin, the usual backup goaltender for Buffalo.
With the Sabres’ best goaltender, Ryan Miller, given a break for the night, Montreal should have been all over Conklin. Instead, the team took only 19 shots and luckily for them, capitalized on the few scoring opportunities they had.
Quebec native, Daniel Briere, opened the scoring at 9:20 in the first period. The goal was Briere’s 32nd of the season and also his 93rd point. Bad news for the Sabres is that their 29-year-old captain will become an unrestricted free agent at season’s end. There will be plenty of teams lining up for the center’s services and it is unsure that Buffalo will have enough cap room to retain Briere.
Michael Ryder tied the game at one with his 27th goal of the season. It also Ryder’s 27th birthday Saturday night. Should Ryder net three more goals before the end of the season, he would tie his previous best of 30 goals set last season.
Montreal took their first lead of the game when Radek Bonk broke in wit Christopher Higgins during a 2-on-1. Although Higgins and the defenseman who was trailing him fell out of the play, Bonk was able to bang away his 13th of the season. Defenseman Janne Niinimaa drew a rare point on the goal. Bonk’s goal came just a minute and a half before Lapierre furthered the lead to two goals.
It was a well disciplined game from both sides as each team was only assessed two penalties apiece. Furthermore, neither team took a penalty in the final period. The Habs’ lack of penalties is certainly something Coach Carbonneau will be pleased with. Also, thanks in part to the lack of powerplay opportunities, all of the game’s goals were scored at even strength.
Another thing Carbonneau will be happy about was the Canadiens’ ability to get the job done with two key points on the line. The same cannot be said for the Toronto Maple Leafs who blew a similar two-goal lead in the third period against the Pittsburgh Penguins. Bad news for the Habs was that Toronto made up for their blunder and won the game in OT.
With Montreal and Toronto picking up wins, the two teams are on route to a colossal match up in what will be the final game of the season for both clubs.
Further scoreboard watching sees that both the New York Islanders took another blow to their playoff chances with a 5-2 loss to the Ottawa Senators. Having lost star netminder Rick DiPietro for likely the remainder of the season, there is little hope left for the Isles who sold a chunk of their future to bring in Ryan Smyth at the deadline.
Montreal plays three, dare I say it, must win games in April. With a day off between each game, the Habs will host the Boston Bruins Tuesday before taking to the road to face the Rangers in New York Thursday and the Maple Leafs in Toronto on Saturday night to conclude the regular season.
Needless to say, the outcome of these games will surely determine whether or not Montreal makes the post-season. Good news is that the Habs currently hold down the eighth and final spot with 88 points in 79 games.