After two games filled with positive signs, the Habs were back in action for a Sunday afternoon Super Bowl special as they hosted the struggling Buffalo Sabres. Facing such a struggling foe should have meant a first win for new coach Martin St. Louis, but instead, he got a first glimpse at the defensive ineptitude that has been the Habs since the start of the season. The Sabres were quite content to play sloppy defence and outscore the Habs as they took the opportunity to get out of their own struggles with a 5-3 win over the Habs.
The new coach made a change and then had to deal with an injury which meant a new roster configuration. St. Louis opted to move Cole Caufield up to the top line with Nick Suzuki and Tyler Toffoli. The line struggled immensely which was not a surprise for this writer as I feel this configuration features too many players with the same strengths and weaknesses on the same line. I digress. The second and third lines remained the same as the previous game. Artturi Lehkonen found himself all the way down on the fourth line with Joel Armia and Ryan Poehling, forming what was easily the best line for this game.
On the blue line, a lower-body injury to Ben Chiarot (that will keep him out for a week) made him unable to play. That meant Jeff Petry was with Brett Kulak as the first pair, Corey Schueneman and Alexander Romanov as the second, and Kale Clague with Chris Wideman as the third. The goaltending matchup saw Craig Anderson for the Sabres face Samuel Montembeault, who was excellent on Saturday, with newcomer Andrew Hammond watching his new team from the bench.
It was a wide-open start to the game as both teams were rather sloppy in neutral zone coverage that created openings for both teams. The only thing more startling than the ineffective neutral zone play of both teams was the lack of execution which meant that the scoring chances were not as good as they should have been. Three minutes into the game, Clague was left alone in front of the net to cover two Sabres. He chose the wrong player as the point shot was deflected by the wide-open Jeff Skinner to open the scoring. On the next shift, Alex Tuch caught Romanov flat-footed to blow by him and get a breakaway. Montembeault made a nice stop and did not give up a rebound.
The second half of the period got underway with the Habs once again late in finding their legs after a relatively slow start. As they were taking over the game, Rasmus Dahlin was sent to the box for tripping Toffoli. The advantage would last only 12 seconds as Gallagher was caught running an inadvertent pick play on a Sabres defender as the Habs were trying to break in. The 4-on-4 sequence, as well as the Sabres advantage, were non-factors. The Habs came close in the final minute as Gallagher sent a pass cross-ice to Hoffman who was all alone but could not get his stick on the puck as the period ended with the shots 12-8 in favour of the Sabres.
The Habs came out strong in the second as they evened the score 1:10 into the period. After a good first shift for the Suzuki line, the Byron line buzzed until the puck came to Schueneman who faked a shot before making a savvy pass to Hoffman who released his one-timer from the face-off dot to beat Anderson.
The goal got the Sabres going as they dominated the next five minutes only to face Montembeault dressing a wall. Montembeault would finally get a break with 12:36 to play as Peyton Krebs was called for an offensive zone trip. The first unit for the Habs was aggressive and likely would have scored if not for an unfortunate broken stick for Caufield. The second unit came out and was horrific, essentially giving Buffalo all the momentum back.
The Sabres took said momentum and capitalized as Skinner used Schueneman and Tuch as screens for his second of the game to make it 2-1.
However, this lead would be short-lived as Petry had his point shot deflected by a Sabres forward into the net to even the mark at two with 8:47 to play in the period. An important player finally getting a gigantic monkey off his back. Or so you would think, but Petry worked hard to erase this positive mark for himself, and this is coming from someone who feels like media and fans were far too harsh toward him after Saturday’s last-minute penalty.
The offensive outburst was not over in this period as Tuch once again snuck in behind Montreal defenders only to be stopped by Montembeault. Kulak completed an excellent forecheck in the offensive zone which prolonged the play until Poehling won his battle. Poehling then completed a between the legs pass from behind the net that found Armia who scored short side for the first Habs lead of the game.
With 2:08 left to play, the Habs were guilty of an obvious too many men on the ice infraction. They were in complete control of the disadvantage until Petry missed his clearing attempt with both Suzuki and Toffoli caught cheating up the ice. The result was a tic-tac-toe that ended on the stick of Tage Thompson and gave Montembeault no chance for a save as Buffalo tied it up on the power play. The Montreal fourth line continued their solid night as Poehling set up Lehkonen in the final moments of the period only to see Anderson come up big as the period ended with the shots 24-19 in favour of the Sabres.
With 11:44 to play, Petry had a brain fart during a zone exit as he made an impossible pass to Lehkonen that left everyone skating in the wrong direction. This led to a Skinner breakaway. Petry then made his mistake even worse as he took Skinner and wrestled him to the ground while running over Montembeault with the puck tangled up in all of this. Unlike the Chicago goal which I still think should not have counted, this one was so obviously caused by Petry that even though Montembeault had no chance to make a save, the goal was obviously good, and the Sabres were back on top.
A few moments later, the Suzuki line was buzzing, Wideman snuck down and was fed by Toffoli in the slot only to see a beauty glove save by Anderson. On the next shift, Kulak rang a rocket off the post as the game’s best line for the night in Poehling’s was once again buzzing in the offensive zone.
With 6:39 to play, the official in the neutral zone called a terrible tripping penalty on Clague that sent the Sabres to the man advantage. The Sabres missed a few good chances, but the officials evened it out with a similarly terrible call against Okposo with five minutes to play.
Montreal’s man advantage gave two good scoring chances to Caufield, but Anderson was waiting for the shot before stepping up once again against Gallagher. After the penalty ended, St. Louis made a call that I absolutely loved. He opted to play the fourth line who had earned that ice time instead of veterans used to automatically getting that ice time. The Suzuki line got back out, which I liked less, but Kulak and Petry lost the puck after a Suzuki faceoff win that immediately led to Skinner’s fourth goal of the game that would be the final dagger for the Habs.
HabsWorld 3 Stars
1st Star – Brett Kulak
Was Kulak around when Hughes told Petry to play better if he wanted to get traded? Kulak is another name that might generate some interest as the trade deadline approaches, and a rare game where he got a seat on a top pairing can only increase his value. It wasn’t a statistical beauty for Kulak but keeping in mind that he had to cover for Petry on a few too many occasions, I think he did pretty good for a guy who often struggles when facing tougher opposition. I thought Kulak had a good game making sound decisions in both the offensive and defensive zones.
Stats: 1 assist, +2, 1 shot, 4 hits, 20:20 T.O.I.
2nd Star – Joel Armia
Not too sure where 2021 Playoff Armia came from, but it was a sight for sore eyes as Armia has been mostly MIA this season. Worth noting that Armia was playing with linemates who made his job easy and perhaps that is the key to his play. Honestly, Poehling and Lehkonen easily could have made this list today, but it would have been repeating what is being said about Armia. Nevertheless, Armia had a good game, earned extra ice time in the process, and scored a nice goal when given the chance to do so.
Stats: 1 goal, +1, 1 shot, 2 hits, 14:34 T.O.I.
3rd Star – Rem Pitlick
Another night where Pitlick stands out by making ordinary plays with regularity. If I’m a team that loses out on the Lehkonen trade front, or if I’m simply not willing to pay the price being asked by Hughes, I might inquire about Pitlick. Pitlick isn’t as well-rounded, but he seems to make an awful lot of smart plays and doesn’t get caught out of position very often. Since being reunited with Evans and Anderson, he’s always in support of Evans defensively, and always there with Anderson when the offensive opportunities arise. I like the line, and I think he’s the motor that’s making it run so effectively as a bottom-six unit.
Stats: 1 assist, +1, 1 hit, 13:18 T.O.I.
Honourable Mention – Corey Schueneman
What does it say about the defenders on the team when you are a last-minute recall playing your fifth NHL game (and third in three days having played Friday and Saturday with Laval) and you outplay three of the other five defenders dressing for the game? Schueneman came in, kept things simple, made the right offensive pass when the opportunity arose, and rarely found himself on the wrong side of a puck battle. Skillfully undermanned as the Habs are currently on the blue line, that’s all that should be asked of all these fringe players, and yet it’s Schueneman, in his fifth game, that figures it out better than Niku, Wideman, and Clague before him. With a coach that, early in his tenure anyways, appears to care more about the crest on the front than the name on the back, could Schueneman quickly earn his way to an NHL end of the season here? If he plays like today, he just might.
Stats: 1 assist, 19:25 T.O.I.