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- January hasn't been a kind month for Lars Eller. He has just 12 points in 44 games, his lowest PPG average of any month.
The bad news is that the rest of the Canadiens, other than those on the first line, continued to play much as they had against the Devils and the Leafs particularly in the first and third frames. The good signs were few and far between and the end result left a far more combative Buffalo club with a fairly easy 4-1 victory over a Montreal group that’s struggling with teamwork, conviction of play, and overall concentration.
It certainly doesn’t help when your supposed All-Star goaltender is quite significantly outplayed by Marty Biron: he of the trade rumours and the nasty inconsistency. It begs the question of whether it might be time to bring in Matt Garon to give Jose Theodore a good break. As such, Hab fans should not be surprised to see the former in Minnesota Thursday night.
It was a tentative Montreal team that took to the ice in the first, eventually managing a mere six shots by the end of the period. Certainly, there were a few positives from the start of the game that probably heartened many of the faithful. The aforementioned Koivu was on fire and back in control of his game after his tough stretch. Andrei Markov gave early signs that he was regaining some confidence and was seen pinching and breaking up plays fairly often. Even Joe Juneau looked offensively strong on a shift or two where he showed he still has a solid control of the puck.
However the good was significantly outweighed by the bad, including the non-committal effort from many, and particularly the continued struggling of Sheldon Souray. Still, the Habs came out of the first with an even score and some small promise, in that there were elements of a solid game not seen since early the previous week.
The second started out much quicker, and by the seven minute mark, the Habs looked to be taking control of the match. Koivu and Ryder had a two-on one foiled by a diving defender who got enough of the puck to put it in Koivu’s skates. Then when Koivu spanked home a Ryder rebound in front of a sprawling Biron, it looked, for all intents and purposes, that the Habs were getting back on track.
Shortly after, the two combined again to give the captain a partial break. Cutting in front of Biron, he forced the Buffalo goalie to make the first move, but was thwarted with an excellent leg save.
The momentum continued, particularly between the dynamic duo on the first line, as they pushed the Sabre defence to its limits on frequent occasions. Indeed, the hard work rewarded the Habs with a powerplay opportunity at around the midway point, but it was near the end of this effort that all momentum shifted to the other side of the puck. Yanic Perreault, beaten along the boards for the puck, took the lazy option and hauled down the Buffalo defender deep in the offensive zone thereby nullifying the remainder of the man advantage and putting the Canadiens on the defensive.
It was less than a minute before Alexei Zhitnik’s shot was deflected above Theodore by Chad Kilger to tie the game. Indeed, Kilger had been very slow to get out to his man, and some – including Don Cherry – would say that placing his stick in front of the shot was only asking for trouble.
A silver lining to the rest of the game would have to be the play of Josef Balej, who stopped thinking midway through the second and started playing. As the game wore on, he started to show numerous NHL-calibre moves and also a surprisingly strong ability along the boards. His vision was in evidence as well as he backhanded a pass from behind the Buffalo net right to the tape of Richard Zednik who’s shot, unfortunately, was significantly below par.
Early in the third, the Habs looked to be making an attempt to take control of the game again when Jan Bulis’ behind the back pass hit a streaking Mike Ribeiro, but Biron was up to the task. Shortly after this Ribeiro found Balej alone in front, and while the rookie forced Biron down, he couldn’t slide the puck home.
The game finally turned Buffalo’s way for good when Biron made the save of the night on Juneau’s one-time shot on a perfect pass from Niklas Sundstrom while the two were two-on-one. Any desire left in the Habs game (save Koivu’s line) was completely sapped at this point.
Perreault made a weak play at the Montreal line eventually forcing Stephane Quintal to take a penalty and the resultant powerplay gave the Sabres the lead for good.
Bouillon made a poor pinch, was hurt in the process, and on the play the Sabres attacked hard and Alex Kotalik scored on a shot that Theo might have had on better days.
Chris Drury finished the scoring when his weak shot struck gold along the ice through Theo’s five-hole, thereby finishing the Habs off for the night. In fact, shortly before this, while wandering from his net, Theo had given away the puck and only a slide from Patrice Brisebois had saved a goal.
Despite the return to form of Koivu, it was a night to forget for the Habs, particularly the latter half of the third, where they didn’t seem to care anymore. Three straight games of disappointing play will have coaches and management scratching their heads looking for answers. Injuries may have a little to do with it, but realistically, it’s not the key players going down.
In fact, it seems that there’s been both a diminishing of the intensity level accompanied by a lack of team unity in terms of playing the system. And when your team isn’t terribly talented, it’s those two elements that have to carry you to the playoffs. With the Islanders picking up a point behind them, the Habs are going to have to dig deep to find their way.