Brendan Gallagher made his long-awaited return to the lineup when the Habs took on the Sabres in a battle of teams looking to keep their small playoff hopes alive. After a miserable opening frame, the Habs scored two quick goals early in the second and did not look back as they picked up the critical win on the road in Buffalo.
With Gallagher’s return, Ilya Kovalchuk was moved down to the second line with Nick Suzuki and Joel Armia. This moved Max Domi down to third line centre with Nick Cousins and Artturi Lehkonen. Jesperi Kotkaniemi was a healthy scratch in this one, as the coaches appeared to try and send a message after a questionable game on Monday.
The Habs had a very slow start in this one. Before Montreal even registered a shot on net, Jack Eichel drew a weak tripping penalty on Armia at centre ice. His shot found its way past Carey Price early on the power play and the Canadiens found themselves down quickly.
The Habs got their first shot on net at the midway point of the opening frame when off a faceoff, a Kovalchuk shot was stopped by Carter Hutton. The rebound came right to Armia, who shot the puck just wide. Shortly after, the Sabres got a two on one rush, but Jeff Skinner’s shot hit the crossbar and stayed out.
With four minutes to go in the period, Conor Sheary was called for holding. But much like most of the first period, it was a disappointing effort. The Montreal top line had a flurry of chances in the last minute but couldn’t muster up the tying goal. So, the Habs went to the intermission down one, knowing that they needed a much better effort for the final forty minutes.
Clearly something was said in the dressing room, as it was an entirely different team wearing red uniforms to start the second period. Following a good opening shift, the second line hopped over the boards and got right to work. After some good work down low, Armia sent the puck out front. Kovalchuk’s initial attempt was stopped but he skated around the defender and picked the corner to tie the game up.
Three minutes in, the Canadiens took over. After Phillip Danault gained the zone, Tatar picked up the puck in the right corner. Tatar spun around and made an unbelievable pass across to a wide-open Gallagher who got Hutton to bite on a deke to the forehand and quickly shifted to the backhand to give the Habs the lead.
The Habs slowed down a little bit after the goals, and play started to level out. After being outshot 10-0 through the first half of the opening period, Montreal found themselves ahead on the shot clock 21-14.
With three minutes to go in the period, Lehkonen got sent off for holding, giving Buffalo their second chance on the power play. The second penalty kill went much more smoothly for the Canadiens and they managed to keep the Sabres off the board and keep the 2-1 lead intact. The second ended with Montreal still in the lead and the Habs got ready for a very important third period.
The Canadiens did a good job conserving the lead for most of the third period. The Sabres put up pressure on the Habs in small spurts. However, Montreal would always respond with some strong shifts of their own and did not allow Buffalo to build any momentum.
With seven minutes to go, Danault was called for a very questionable hooking penalty, giving Buffalo a critical power play chance. Excellent positioning from the Canadiens on the penalty kill kept the Sabres attackers to the perimeter. The Habs came up with another massive penalty kill to keep the one-goal lead.
Buffalo pulled Hutton with two minutes to go. After an incredible game, Suzuki picked the puck up at centre and set up Tatar for the empty netter to seal the deal for Montreal.
The Sabres pulled Hutton one more time, and Carey Price found himself behind his net with the puck. He tried to fire one down, but a Buffalo player at centre blocked it before it could get all the way down and Hutton was re-inserted at the next whistle.
Even though we didn’t get to see a Price goal at the end, the Habs still got the critical two points. Although they are still far away from a playoff spot, these were two points Montreal absolutely needed to have any chance in the playoff race.
The Habs will head into a critical weekend, as they have home matchups with the Panthers and Blue Jackets, two teams that they are chasing. To stay in the race the Habs will need a big weekend and getting the win in Buffalo is a start.
HabsWorld Habs Three Stars
First Star – Nick Suzuki
Suzuki was the best Montreal Canadien on the ice. He finished second behind Armia in ice time for all forwards and was on the ice in all situations. In a season that has seen its fair share of highlights and lowlights, Suzuki has perhaps been the best part. He is quickly developing into a centreman that you can rely on in any situation and he represents a big part of the Habs’ future.
Stats: 2A, +2, 3 SOG, 17:50 TOI
Second Star – Brendan Gallagher
There is something different about the team when Gallagher is in the lineup. He is the straw that stirs the drink for the Habs and he leads by example every shift. Despite playing in his first game in a while, Gallagher came to play and found a way to get the game-winning goal for a team that really needed it.
Stats: GWG, +1, 5 SOG, 17:05 TOI
Third Star – Tomas Tatar
The chemistry that Tatar has with Danault and Gallagher is unbelievable. When they are in the offensive zone they always know where each other are on the ice, without even looking up. This was quite evident on the game-winner when Danault put the puck exactly where Tatar could get to it, then Tatar made the perfect pass while barely looking at Gallagher. Tatar was also trusted on the ice late in the game and got the empty-net goal to finish off the Sabres.
Stats: 1G, 1A, +2, 2 SOG, 16:23 TOI
Honourable Mention- Carey Price
Price didn’t face a lot in this one, but there were several occasions where he saved the game from getting out of hand for Montreal. The Habs had a terrible first ten minutes and they were heavily outshot in that stretch. Price weathered that storm and came up with several huge saves in the third period to help clinch the two points for the Canadiens.
Stats: Win, 20 saves, 1 GA