In a game that had no playoff implications for either team, the Canadiens visited Buffalo Wednesday night and were defeated 2-1 by the Sabres in regulation at the Keybank Centre.
Carey Price started for the Habs in what may well be his last start of the regular season. Robin Lehner drew the assignment for the Sabres, after a dismal outing on Monday night against Toronto where he gave up 3 goals on 5 shots before being pulled around the 5 minute mark of the first period. Of course, the Canadiens have already clinched the Atlantic Division title and will play the New York Rangers in Round 1. Buffalo will hit the links early for the sixth consecutive year, ending what has been for them a “pathetic” season, according to Team Canada member and their star centre, Varna, Ontario’s Ryan O’Reilly.
In the opening frame, the teams exchanged a few opportunities. Around the ten minute mark, Jack Eichel intercepted a clearing attempt by the struggling Alexei Emelin and worked the puck to former Hab Josh Gorges. Gorges promptly made a cross-ice pass to Rasmus Ristolainen. Ristolainen wired a shot off the post and in to open the scoring. The Canadiens did push back and very nearly evened the score on a few occasions, including a sharp angle shot on an open net by Dwight King that caromed off the post. However, the first period ended with the Sabres up 1-0. The Sabres certainly earned their first period lead as they outhit, outhustled and outworked the Canadiens.
The second period’s first minute featured a highlight-reel pad save by Price on O’Reilly to keep the Sabres lead to one goal. The Canadiens did respond with some sustained pressure, particularly the Pacioretty-Danault-Radulov line. Brian Flynn, playing in his first game since March 7th, also rung one off the post on a sharp angled shot from the left hand side. Around the halfway mark of period two, the Habs were hemmed in their own end by the more physical and determined Sabre forwards. An Evander Kane shot rebounded off the side of the net in front of Price. The normally reliable Artturi Lekhonen had an opportunity to clear the puck but either was handcuffed or lost the puck in his skates. Tyler Ennis won the ensuing puck battle and buried a shot over Price’s left shoulder for his first goal since February 12th, thereby extending Buffalo’s lead to 2-0.
For the remainder of the period, the Sabres took full control of the play, aided by a number of Habs’ miscues. Mistakes included an ill-advised pinch by Emelin, resulting in an odd-man rush that Tyler Ennis very nearly converted, but for a scintillating save by Price. Radulov followed up Emelin’s gaffe with a glaring giveaway at the Sabre blueline that sent Evander Kane and former Hab captain Brian Gionta on a 2-1 break. That opportunity was thwarted only by a great save by Price on Kane and a fortuitous bouncing puck that Gionta could not handle and direct into the open net. The Canadiens hung on at the end of period two and barely kept the deficit limited to two goals.
The early part of the third period featured some wide open play by both teams. Eichel very nearly made it 3-0 on a hard pass from Sam Reinhart that hopped over his stick. Just after Eichel’s chance and about a minute into the period, Paul Byron started a rush up the right hand side. He headmanned the puck to Radulov who alertly made a cross-ice pass to a streaking Tomas Plekanec who went in alone, deked Lehner and scored the Canadiens first goal of the game.
Unfortunately, the Habs did not follow up Plekanec’s effort with any further pressure. Instead, carelessness and miscues with (and without) the puck persisted. At the two minute mark, the consistently inconsistent Nathan Beaulieu was caught flat-footed watching a loose puck in the neutral zone, allowing Ennis to walk in all alone on Price, who bailed out Beaulieu on the play. A short time later, Nikita Nesterov allowed Nicolas Deslauriers to skate in untouched with a golden scoring opportunity, which was thwarted by Price (one of the only Habs who did not take the night off). For the rest of the period, the Canadiens scoring opportunities were minimal. There was a Canadiens power play that produced some pressure but did not result in any outstanding opportunities (As an aside, the Habs have not scored a power play goal away from the Bell Centre since February 27th, a streak that must end if the Canadiens are to enjoy a deep playoff run.) The Canadiens pulled Price with about 1:30 left in the third period and, while they did apply some pressure in the Sabres zone, they could not get the equalizer.
Throughout the entire game, Montreal played uninspired hockey. It is perhaps natural for them to have a letdown after clinching the division Monday night. But the Canadiens will have to play much better hockey if they are to have any playoff success. Their failure to respond in kind to the Sabres physical play was noteworthy.
Note: Alexei Emelin was not on the bench in the third period and he did not return to the game due to a lower body injury. No further updates were provided.
HW Habs 3 Stars of the Night
1st Star: Carey Price – Excellence as always from the Canadiens superstar netminder. Even on a night where the Canadiens’ skaters did not compete, Price gave the Habs a chance to win. The game would not have been close if not for Price.
Stats: 28 saves on 30 shots, 2.00 GAA, .933 SV%
2nd Star: Tomas Plekanec – Plekanec scored the Canadiens only goal and was one of the only skaters that did not make any glaring miscues. That was more than enough for the 2nd Star on this night.
Stats: 1 G; +/-: 0; TOI: 13:10; SOG: 2
3rd Star: Dwight King – King very nearly scored his first goal as a Hab and was a member of the fourth line that put in a solid night’s work, relatively speaking. Of course, when your fourth line may be your best line of the night, you know that your team is in trouble.
Stats: 0 G; +/-: 0; TOI: 13:10; SOG: 2
Honourable Mention: Brendan Gallagher – Gallagher was one of the few Canadiens that played with energy. While he was kept off the scoresheet, he generated some opportunities and was in Lehner’s office for much of the night. He also drew the third period Sabre penalty that gave the Canadiens their best opportunity to even the score. The uptick in Gallagher’s play over the last few weeks will hopefully bode well for the playoffs.
Stats: 0 G, 0 A; +/-: -1; TOI: 14:01; SOG: 4