The Habs were victorious against the Sabres in the season opener on Friday night by a score of 3-2 in a shootout, playing the type of hockey that creates lifelong hockey fans. This game had scoring chances, good goaltending, a power play goal, a shorthanded goal, overtime, a shootout, some hard hits; quite simply an incredible pace from start to finish.
The first period started out fast and furious for the Canadiens as Charles Hudon, Artturi Lehkonen, and Tomas Plekanec continued the same intelligent play that created success for them in the preseason. The Drouin line continued that momentum before Buffalo was called for a faceoff infraction. While the power play got a few good looks, the results did not materialize, and this proved costly as the Habs took their own penalty shortly after. The penalty kill was effective, but Plekanec sent them back to work as Ales Hemsky’s penalty was expiring.
This time, an ill-advised pass by Lehkonen was compounded when Jordie Benn misplayed the pass. The result was an odd-man rush for Buffalo and Jason Pominville roofing a back-hand over Carey Price’s shoulder to give the Sabres the lead. With the crowd buzzing, Buffalo took control of the game for a few minutes as the Benn and Mark Streit pairing really looked slow and confused. Fortunately for Montreal, they would continue to work hard and eventually regain the momentum. Jonathan Drouin would get a short break and catch Robin Lehner cheating, finding the iron on the short side to conserve the Sabres lead. When offered a second similar occasion, Drouin opted for a pass that would prove wise as Max Pacioretty one-timed the feed to tie the game. The rest of the period was all Montreal as they would return to the locker room with a tie game and a 17-11 shot advantage. However, it wasn’t all good news as Jacob de la Rose suffered a broken nose on a hit from former Hab Nathan Beaulieu near the end of the period.
The second frame got off on the wrong foot for the Habs as Jack Eichel victimized Plekanec to start the period. After winning consecutive puck races, Eichel found a cross-zone pass to Pominville who had lost Alzner in coverage as he netted his second of the night. The goal seemed to faze the Canadiens very little as over the next minute of play, Drouin and Shaw were both fed in the slot with golden opportunities. Neither scored, but Shaw did find the crossbar with his chance. Evander Kane sent Montreal to their second man advantage on the night, but the result did not match the zone time that the Canadiens were able to generate.
In addition to poor results, Montreal was unable to capitalize on the positive energy as the game continued its fast pace and numerous momentum swings. Hemsky was then penalized for the second time. It was an offensive zone infraction for slashing, and a rather dumb play all around from the veteran. While killing the penalty, Pacioretty took an interference penalty leaving Montreal down by two players for over a minute. Full marks to Plekanec, Benn and Shea Weber for standing tall and helping Price in getting out of that jam. Montreal would then be granted a man advantage of their own, but would once again come up empty despite some considerable zone time over the two minutes. In the end, the Habs appeared to be out-paced over this period, being outshot 18-10.
The Sabres continued their dominance to start the third. Other than Mete, all defenders looked too slow to handle the speed of the Sabres and get the puck out of the Montreal zone. It didn’t help the defenders that some usually very reliable forwards were getting caught defensively. After Danault was caught in this way, he came out for his next shift looking for redemption and started to turn the tide with some excellent hustle on the puck.
The full Habs wake-up call was completed when Drouin got rocked by Rasmus Ristolainen as every single Canadiens fan held their breath for a few seconds until Drouin got up. The massive hit was immediately followed by a hard collision between Pominville and Shaw, which somehow landed Shaw in the sin bin. On the ensuing penalty kill, Alzner made a solid defensive play which allowed Danault to receive a Weber dump-in and wrap it in the net to tie the game on a goal Lehner would like to have back. After the goal, Buffalo returned to work in the Montreal zone for the better part of what remained to the third period. However, Buffalo did offer Montreal a power play with five minutes to play. Claude Julien decided to play for the acquired point and did not send out the four-forward unit, effectively sending the game to overtime.
The overtime provided more of what was witnessed all night. Both goaltenders were forced to shine as the play continued to be wide open and played at an absolutely breathtaking pace. Just to make the point about the pace on the night, Buffalo ended up ahead in the shot count, a 45-40 margin, that’s a total of 85 shots for a regular season game. In the shootout, Price stopped all three Buffalo shooters, Byron hit the post, and Drouin had a highlight reel deke to win the game.
Observations on the Night
- Victor Mete – With all eyes on the rookie, Mete had a solid game, looking as calm as he did during the preseason. This is interesting considering the nervousness shown by Mikhail Sergachev just one year ago in that very same situation. Mete made some nice and intelligent pinches, but it’s his defensive awareness that will dictate if he stays or not, so let’s underline the fact that not only did he seem to be functional in this facet of the game, but he seems to have earned the trust of his teammates too. On his very first NHL shift, he got to watch Shea Weber make a pinch, leaving Mete as the lone man back. He’s seen as a regular by his teammates, the highest form of praise for this young man. To further this point, Montreal was hemmed in their zone for a very long shift early in the second period. Mete was on the ice and it’s worth mentioning that he never panicked, never cheated, and stuck to his assignment, showing yet again his sound mental presence and game awareness.
- Quick Shooting – Charles Hudon and Alex Galchenyuk had decent games. Not excellent, far from terrible, it was clear that both players worked hard, though both players need to be a little smarter with the puck. First, both players were caught a few times coughing up pucks with linemates heading in the wrong direction. This, under Claude Julien, should be something that improves as the season progresses. Galchenyuk’s instances of committing this mistake were far more noticeable. Furthermore, both players need to be coached to shoot more once they get to the slot, even if it’s the high slot. They both have rockets, and accurate ones at that. They must shoot more to keep the opposition on edge, to create rebounds, and ultimately to prevent the bad turnovers.
- Fourth Line Tweaking – Jacob de la Rose deserved to play tonight. There is no question that he outworked and outperformed Torrey Mitchell in the pre-season. Having said this, when looking at the line as a whole with Hemsky and Paul Byron, de la Rose seemed like he was a step behind all night long. This is not a knock on him as he had a good night defensively and played his game. It just seems like a line built with two speedsters in Hemsky and Byron could generate more offensive zone time if paired with another player whose best attribute is speed. That’s Mitchell, not de la Rose. This isn’t a big deal as no one expects de la Rose or Mitchell to play 82 games, but something that was noticeable on this night.
- Blueline Analysis – Many questions were raised about the blueline after the preseason, and many remain. Mete has already been a topic of discussion and though he’s shown no signs of slowing down, his return to junior will be questioned until he plays his tenth game of the season and most likely again as the 40-game mark approaches. Weber was his regular dependable self. The Karl Alzner and Jeff Petry pairing had a solid game, each player doing was is expected of them, creating an effective pairing in the process. Given the important defensive assignments that came forth on this night, Alzner specifically stood out as he played an excellent second half. The Jordie Benn and Mark Streit duo was another story. They looked slow and disorganized all night long. It will be interesting to see if Julien opts to keep them together or go with a fresh look on Saturday.