The Habs were back on the ice after Saturday’s thrilling comeback victory over the Maple Leafs as they kicked off their first back-to-back segment of the season. They travelled to Buffalo for the occasion to take on the Sabres who came in at 2-0-1 to start the season, the same mark the Habs were striving to reach.
Claude Julien opted for some changes with the two games in two nights as Keith Kinkaid started his first game in a Habs uniform, facing Carter Hutton for the Sabres. On the blueline, Cale Fleury and Brett Kulak got to watch from the press box as Mike Reilly and Christian Folin got their first taste of regular season action after subpar training camps. Both teams battled hard and played rather sloppy defence on their way to a 5-4 Buffalo victory in overtime. The major difference in the game was the Habs’ inability to stay out of the penalty box.
The Habs came out strong as Jonathan Drouin and Jesperi Kotkaniemi continued their strong start to the season as they really created momentum for their team. This rhythm was broken with an interference penalty against Tomas Tatar at the four-minute mark, a bad idea against a power play running at 60% in the early season. The Sabres made the Habs pay rapidly as some sloppy rebound control by Kinkaid compounded some soft clearing attempts by Nate Thompson and Shea Weber. The result was a Victor Olofsson goal for an early Buffalo lead.
This goal gave the Sabres wings as they completely dominated the Habs until another generous call sent Kotkaniemi to the penalty box with only six minutes to play in the period. However, Montreal surprised the Sabres when Thompson controlled the puck in the offensive zone and allowed Joel Armia to get open, accept a pass and bury a shorty to tie the game.
The special teams continued to be important as the Habs took advantage of a third cheap call this period, this time against Rasmus Dahlin. This advantage with under two minutes to play acted quickly when Nick Suzuki challenged a Rasmus Ristolainen clearing attempt and saw the puck come out to Armia in the low slot for the Habs first lead of the game.
A slow start to the second period by both teams was jolted at the four-minute mark when Tatar was once again sent to the penalty box, this time for slashing. A minute later, Jack Eichel skated in and released a quick wrist shot that surprised Kinkaid and Ben Chiarot to tie the game.
This period then continued to be rather tentative until Vladimir Sobotka took a high-sticking penalty with 12 minutes to play. The Habs could not take advantage despite plenty of zone time.
The game returned to its stalemate of a second period until Eichel scored his second of the night when he skated into the zone and fired a shot that Kinkaid surely wants a reset on. This goal stunted the Canadiens who spent the rest of the second period in their own zone. To make matters worse, Jordan Weal took a penalty for holding with only three minutes to play. Luckily for Weal, his teammates came up big and killed the penalty to keep the game to a one-goal lead heading to the third period despite two glorious chances for Eichel to complete his hattrick.
The Sabres wasted little time getting on the board in the third as Jeff Skinner scored only 47 seconds in after Mete and Weber allowed him to skate up the middle uncontested. As has been the trend through three games, the Habs responded. A minute later, an excellent play by Reilly got the play out of the defensive zone to allow Drouin to show patience and find Armia who quickly relayed it to Kotkaniemi who beat Hutton over the shoulder.
Minutes later, the Habs got a power play they could not use to tie the game but created enough momentum to completely take over the game as Kotkaniemi barely missed a chance before Tatar hit the post. The Habs finally tied the game with seven minutes to play when Chiarot accepted a pass from Artturi Lehkonen and ripped home a low shot that beat Hutton.
The rest of the seven minutes was played evenly as both defensive units continued to struggle and allow scoring chances but both Hutton and Kinkaid were solid to end the period. With 35 seconds to play, Phillip Danault was called for slashing to send the red-hot power play to work. I will not criticize the officiating on this night, but instead the league. Six of the eight penalties (including both teams) on the night are likely not penalties in March. The NHL is the only league that changes its rules as the season progresses. They must fix this; it makes no sense that a relatively clean game such as this one sees eight power plays awarded.
With a 4-on-3 in overtime, the Habs killed off the penalty, technically. However, before Danault could get back in the play as his time in the box expired, Eichel found Marcus Johansson on the back door to beat Kinkaid and end the game.
HabsWorld Habs 3 Stars
1st Star – Joel Armia
His usual solid self defensively, Armia placed extra effort in his forechecking tonight and the result was that he caused many turnovers and was able to take advantage to put up some numbers on the score sheet. If this line continues to play this way, they will quickly be the second line on the team. Now if only Domi could get going offensively (maybe try him with Gallagher and Tatar?)
Stats: 2 goals, 1 assist, +2, 4 shots, 2 hits, 16:30 T.O.I.
2nd Star – Jonathan Drouin
The best forward for the Habs over three games, Drouin was an offensive dynamo again tonight. He showed great patience with the puck on numerous occasions to create scoring chances and made smart plays when the offensive ones just weren’t there. Perhaps the most encouraging sign from Drouin has been his willingness to commit to the forecheck and get to the dirty areas of the ice to win some puck battles.
Stats: 1 assist, +1, 16:49 T.O.I.
3rd Star – Jesperi Kotkaniemi
He continues his hot start along with Drouin. It’s odd to see Kotkaniemi as the trigger man after watching him be the puck carrier for much of last season. On a line with Drouin though, he is absolutely the trigger man, so hopefully, he continues to get open in dangerous areas and this line will be a good one if this continues.
Stats: 1 goal, +1, 2 shots, 2 hits, 14:38 T.O.I.
Honourable Mention – Ben Chiarot
Chiarot struggled mightily in the first period. His reaction? He came back in the second, played solid physical defence and never panicked. He is a number four defenceman who struggles against the speed game. Get used to it. That takes nothing away from the fact that he’s well-positioned, physical, and covers for Petry who’s been the Habs best with the freedom to consistently push the pace. In addition, Chiarot makes accurate passes (though I wish he’d opt for the pass more often instead of the dump-out). People who were expecting the second coming of Dustin Byfuglien will be disappointed, but people expecting Karl Alzner 2.0 are reading far too much into the mistakes he’s made this early in the season.
Stats: 1 goal, 0 (+/-), 2 shots, 1 hit, 24:11 T.O.I.