The Habs were visiting Buffalo on Thursday as they put their early season success on the line against an opponent who was once again failing to meet slightly heightened expectations this season. The matchup between the pipes included Carter Hutton making his eighth start of the season for the Sabres. He faced Antti Niemi, who entered sporting a perfect 2-0 mark on the year. The skaters remained unchanged from Tuesday, an understandable decision given the effort provided in the win against the Flames. The effort on this night was nowhere near Tuesday’s breathtaking performance as the Habs were mostly dominated by the Sabres. In the end, Buffalo won 4-3 in a game that the Habs controlled way longer than they deserved to.
The Habs wasted no time in exposing the Sabres as the third shift in the opening two minutes saw Artturi Lehkonen and Max Domi start where they left off Tuesday. Lehkonen applied pressure on Marco Scandella who coughed up the puck. Domi jumped on it, cut to the inside and let a quick wrist shot rip over Hutton’s glove for an early 1-0 lead.
A few moments later, Rasmus Ristolainen was sent to the box for interference against Lehkonen as the latter’s forecheck was once again responsible for a good chance to score for the Habs. The power play was unsuccessful mostly because all the shots taken by the Habs were heavily hitting Sabres players in the legs.
Though zone time was likely even over the course of the next stretch of play, the quality of the chances created heavily favoured the visitors. This is not to say that the Sabres were listless, but no one was as close to being as dangerous as the Drouin-Domi-Lehkonen trio once again. Niemi made a few solid and important saves, though nothing was spectacular since Niemi controlled his rebounds and did not slide all over the ice which is when he tends to get in trouble. Overall, it was a period that lacked excitement, a perfect road period after the early 1-0 lead.
The opening of the second period wasn’t as positive since Jordie Benn was guilty of high sticking Jeff Skinner. The first kill of the night for the Habs managed to keep Buffalo off the board, but not without relying on Niemi to make some good saves.
After the penalty expired, Benn failed to clear the zone and what ensued was the Sabres cycling down low for well over a minute before Jake McCabe rang one off the iron and out of the rink to finally save the Habs.
The second half of the period saw both teams open up. This started with a bad pinch by Noah Juulsen who saw support where it wasn’t available. In Juulsen’s defence, Lehkonen’s usual smart play would read this pinch and cover, but it didn’t happen this time. This left the Sabres with an odd-man rush that ended behind Niemi on the rebound to tie the game as Jason Pominville picked up the goal.
With just under four minutes to play in the period, the Habs got a lucky bounce. Xavier Ouellet, feeling the pressure of the Sabres forecheck, dumped the puck to the Buffalo zone. The icing was negated by the tireless effort of Jesperi Kotkaniemi who beat the defender and put the puck on the net. While everyone thought that Hutton had the puck, Joel Armia took the loose puck, circled the net, and put it home to restore the lead.
Thirty seconds later, Andrew Shaw was called for a blatant neutral zone hook, another dumb penalty for Shaw. On the man advantage, the Sabres got the puck behind Niemi who lost his balance while being pushed from behind by Pominville. Before Niemi had a chance to get set again, Pominville got up and scored on a scrambling Niemi. Montreal challenged but it was ruled that Pominville was pushed into Niemi by Jeff Petry and the goal stood.
Before the end of the period, Kyle Okposo recklessly cross-checked Kotkaniemi headfirst into the end boards. Okposo was penalized on the play that would also draw a crowd to end the period.
The Habs started the third on a power play that never threatened Hutton’s net. After the penalty, play looked much like the second as the Sabres dictated play as the young and small Habs looked intimidated. Niemi multiplied some important and increasingly flashy saves to keep the game tied.
With 13 minutes left to play, Domi gained speed in his zone before getting the puck and weaving through the neutral zone. He entered the Buffalo zone through the middle as the defenders gave him way too much room. He released a quick wrist shot that scored, a shot Hutton likely would be in favour of seeing again.
As the ten-minute mark arrived, Shaw jumped on the ice and grabbed the puck to cause an obvious too many men penalty that the Habs would kill. Kotkaniemi was applauded for his effort on the Armia goal, but tonight was without a doubt his most difficult night defensively. With seven minutes to go, this reared its head as Kotkaniemi was guilty of gliding and watching the play as his man broke free toward the front of the net where Sam Reinhart redirected the puck past Niemi for yet another tie game.
After a few good chances created by the Domi line, it was the Sabres who would score next (and last). Armia was given a ghostly tripping penalty with 1:50 to play. On the ensuing power play, the Sabres earned their first lead of the night when Okposo fired from the top of the zone with Niemi completely screened by Pominville who was unchallenged in front of the net.
I don’t like to use this space to second guess, but the Habs unsuccessfully pulled Niemi, and the first five skaters were obvious as Drouin, Domi, Gallagher, Tatar, and Petry were on the ice. Given that the team had only one line working on this night, the decision to send out Armia over Lehkonen to replace Niemi makes absolutely no sense to me given that Gallagher was the one screening Hutton anyways. Anyways, the Habs lost in regulation for only the second time this season. Expect to see Charles Hudon or Nikita Scherbak replace Shaw and/or Nicolas Deslauriers on Saturday (I would personally replace both).
HabsWorld Habs 3 Stars
1st Star – Max Domi
Domi and Lehkonen were about the only Habs to show up and put in a full 60-minute effort. Against a Sabres blueline that looked very average when tested, Domi was rewarded twice, keeping this game within reach longer than it likely should have been.
Stats: 2 goals, +1, 3 shots, 18:33 T.O.I.
2nd Star – Antti Niemi
For large portions of the second and third periods, the Habs relied far too heavily on Niemi to keep him in this game. His saves aren’t always pretty and the rebound control leaves much to be desired, but he was the reason the game was even close.
Stats: 1 assist, 38 saves, 42 shots, 4.06 G.A.A., .905 SV %, 59:06 T.O.I.
3rd Star – Artturi Lehkonen
Lehkonen continues to prove his worth as a middle-six winger. I say middle-six because he seems snake-bitten again and perhaps his full offensive potential is never reached, but his intensity on the puck, his consistency, and his defensive awareness mean that his spot is most certainly not in danger. He created many turnovers for his linemates again; a definite leader on this year’s team.
Stats: 1 assist, +1, 16:41 T.O.I.
Honourable Mention – Jonathan Drouin
Drouin was definitely not as effective as he was on Tuesday but he was still part of the line that looked dangerous all night. On a night where the rest of the team shows up, his effort probably was not sufficient to be recognized. However, on this night, he gets this nod by default really.
Stats: 0 points, +1, 4 shots, 18:39 T.O.I.