Saturday’s contest was a potential turning point in the season as Carey Price made his return and needed to be his former self in an attempt to get the Habs back on track. The game featured an opportunistic Habs forward group, a solid blueline, and Price making it all look easy. The Habs took the contest by a 3-0 score, marking Price’s first shutout of the season and the 40th of his career. Things weren’t all perfect on the night as there remain some aspects of the game that need to be worked on, but it was definitely a step in the right direction. A direction that needs to be followed intensely as the Habs have a giant mountain to climb to be relevant again this season.
The first period was entertaining, especially for Montreal fans as the Canadiens controlled the better part of the period as would be indicated by the final shot clock at 14-10 Montreal. The Habs would control play from the opening faceoff, as the Sabres committed a series of badly placed turnovers over the course of the initial five minutes of play. These included turnovers at both bluelines, which rendered the forwards completely useless in terms of back pressure on the puck carrier. The only thing missing for Montreal was quite familiar as they simply could not finish their chances. Buffalo then got a shift deep in Montreal territory as Byron Froese failed to clear the puck three times during one shift. Luckily for Froese, Price’s first look on this night would be reassuring as he made the stop and then batted the rebound out of the air into the corner to clear his net.
At 12:40, Jason Pominville was sent to the box for hooking and the Habs’ power play would make them pay quickly. Only 14 seconds into the man advantage, Alex Galchenyuk brought the puck to the point where Jonathan Drouin found Jeff Petry for the one-timer. It was a low shot that bounced off Rasmus Ristolainen’s stick to beat Robin Lehner. In what has become a trend of late, Montreal got an early lead. Buffalo would be awarded a power play shortly after as Tomas Plekanec batted a puck out of the air and into the seats in the defensive zone. Buffalo would get nothing going on their advantage as Montreal retreated to the locker room with the lead.
The second period started rather quietly as both teams were guilty of terrible passing which resulted in scrambles all over the ice and much neutral zone play. One particularly bad stretch for the Canadiens included a giveaway by Joe Morrow which was mostly caused by the fact that he didn’t have a single forward on his side of the red line while trying to break out. Luckily for him and his forwards, Price was able to scramble and make the save to conserve the lead. Buffalo would finally get going a bit as they peppered some shots on Price before the midway point of the period. Price would make his presence felt and perhaps quiet a few critics in the process as he looked quite excellent during this stretch of play.
With 11:09 to play, Seth Griffith was called for hooking Jakub Jerabek, but this time the power play was not able to get much going. The few chances they did muster included Galchenyuk exploding his stick on an attempted one-timer, and some whiffs on glorious rebounds chances in front of the net. After this failed attempt, it appeared like the Habs completely stopped competing. Buffalo took the play to the Habs for a good three minutes, until Jerabek took matters into his own hands. He pushed Kyle Okposo completely off the puck before making a one-handed pass to Victor Mete. Mete completed the breakout with a cross-ice pass to Drouin who one-time passed to Paul Byron to create a two-on-one. Byron wisely put the puck on the far pad of Lehner, and all Galchenyuk had left to do was the shovel home the rebound for what was likely an undeserved 2-0 lead (in this period anyways). The goal was Galchenyuk’s fifth of the season and his first in 11 games. The last five minutes was all Buffalo as they desperately attempted to get back in the game, but Price was not allowing that to happen.
Entering the final period with hockey’s most dangerous lead, the Habs spent most the period defending said lead and relying on Price being Price in his first game back. With 13 minutes to play, the game picked up again a bit as Charles Hudon created a turnover in the Buffalo zone and created an open-net scenario for both Plekanec and Gallagher, but Gallagher was on his backhand and was unable to finish. To make matters worse, Shaw was called for slashing on the very next shift. This is one moment where the team needed to come up big for both Gallagher and Shaw, and Byron took matters into his own hands. After a good forecheck by Plekanec, Byron intercepted a soft attempt to gain the zone by the Sabres and used his speed to blow by the defenders. He skated by Ristolainen and tucked the puck five-hole on Lehner to stretch the lead to three.
Buffalo coach Phil Housley really gambled and pulled his netminder with five minutes to go! Plekanec hit the post on a clearing attempt. After this missed attempt, the Housley strategy proved to be effective as immediately after a timeout, Evander Kane scored on a rebound with 32 seconds to play. There was brief contact on the goal and the league initiated a goalie interference review (as is the rule in the final minute of play) and it wound up being called back. This was the final nail in the Sabres coffin as the game ended 3-0.
The Carey Price Effect
To the average fan, Carey Price’s night was uneventful. Sure, he ended up with 36 saves but little if any of those 36 are going to be replayed relentlessly on the highlights over the course of the season. So, the shutout belongs to the team to a certain extent, right? This line of thinking is exactly why so many fans of this team don’t understand why the experts constantly rave about this goaltender. What makes Price great is not having the need to make the show-stopping save. He doesn’t give out a rebound, he makes a timely save to get into the head of the opponent’s head, and then watches the opposition make an extra pass or a wrong decision with the puck which makes his job easier. In this game, Buffalo suffered the Carey Price effect, something I haven’t seen all season.
Suddenly Performing Blueline
In a strange turn of events, it appears the absence of Shea Weber has whipped a few of the defenders into shape. The first and most noteworthy of these is Jeff Petry. Petry has been forced to play an imposing number of minutes and he has responded by being smarter with the puck. He has also taken fewer chances and the results have been evident. If Petry can continue to play this well once Weber does return, the struggles of the blueline may be a thing of the past. Then again, it helps that Joe Morrow suddenly looks like an NHL defender, and he’s been helped with Jakub Jerabek looking excellent in his first stint in the NHL. Morrow has cut down on his turnovers, and Jerabek looks far more physical than he did during the preseason. Having both those players logging regular minutes also take away some puck-moving pressure off both Petry and Victor Mete. It’s a situation that is interesting because who now takes a seat once Weber and David Schlemko are both ready to go? Oh, did I mention that Jordie Benn has been playing much better too? Schlemko finished up his conditioning stint earlier in the day and was officially recalled after the game.
Top Line Production
The reunion of Byron with Galchenyuk and Drouin was not a complete success. The line spent far too much time in their own zone. However, the presence of Byron brings a different dimension than Pacioretty, and the result was that all three goals on the night included members of this line contributing. This team produces in bunches and this is the idea with essentially playing with three second lines, the hope that one line will finish their chances on a given night. This line was the contributor tonight. If they can be that line a bit more regularly, it would take much pressure off the Pacioretty-Danault-Shaw line.