The Habs kicked off their weekend double-header with a visit to Buffalo on Friday night to take on the Sabres. In a matchup of two lottery teams, what was surely promised was that there wouldn’t be many goals as both teams struggle mightily offensively. However, this presented an interesting challenge for the young Habs as they had to deal with the rare expectation of victory facing a team below them in the standings. Antti Niemi replaced Carey Price between the pipes as he faced Linus Ullmark for the Sabres. Niemi was certainly a factor as the entire game was rather sloppy, but the Sabres getting the better chances overall. Niemi would be perfect on this night as the Habs would win the contest 3-0 after two empty-net goals in the final minute of play.
The opening five minutes of the game set the tone for much of the period. Buffalo had the upper hand in the faceoff circle, they forced the Montreal defencemen to accept many hits deep in their own zone, and when the Habs were able to get something going offensively, the Sabres were quick to get the shot block in place to protect their young netminder. The result was a period that was quite difficult to watch for Habs fans. Some younger defenders were already getting weary of the rough stuff by the midway point in the period as both Noah Juulsen and Mike Reilly committed errors that made it look as though they were hearing footsteps in their own zone.
Offensively, the Habs were led mostly by Brendan Gallagher who had a decent period. Despite these efforts, the Sabres were all over the Canadiens in the opening half of the period, with their best chance coming from hitting the post on a point-blank shot. This domination was physical more than it was about puck control, but it was noteworthy nonetheless. Luckily for the Canadiens, Kyle Okposo took a penalty with a little more than four minutes to play for the first power play of the night. The Habs were not able to capitalize on the opportunity, but Paul Byron missed an empty-net chance as he couldn’t get to a juicy Ullmark rebound after a typical Alex Galchenyuk one-timer. Although the Canadiens could not get on the board, the man advantage at least turned the tides for the final two minutes of the period as they outplayed Buffalo in those minutes. With the lack of scoring chances at both ends, it was really no surprise to see the period end with a 0-0 score despite an 11-6 Buffalo lead in shots.
The Habs came out with a bit more bite to start the second period. The biggest change appeared to be in strategy so perhaps some kudos are deserved for coach Claude Julien. The Habs looked like they were trying to go toe-to-toe physically with the Sabres in the first but they came out for the second looking to play the puck. Perhaps more importantly, they were willing to accept some corporal punishment while being patient with the puck to make a play.
The results were immediate as they scored merely five minutes into the period. Jacob de la Rose won a face-off which allowed Galchenyuk to circle the offensive zone. He spun and attempted to fire at the net, but the puck went off Artturi Lehkonen right to de la Rose. The latter would miss the net, but the rebound off the end board came back out to Lehkonen who made no mistake for a 1-0 Habs lead.
On the very next shift, Nikita Scherbak patiently waited for Charles Hudon to get open beside the net before sending him the puck. Unfortunately, Hudon fanned on the shot. With 12 minutes expired in the period, Nicolas Deslauriers and Daniel Carr battled for the puck deep in Buffalo territory. Carr was eventually able to get the puck out and attempt a wraparound. He missed the attempt, but the result was a loose puck close to Byron Froese in the slot. Unfortunately for Froese, his stick was being held and the puck stayed out of the net even though the Habs would get a power play on the play. This man advantage would once again create some chances as Gallagher came close and then Scherbak made a nice pass to Lehkonen in the dying moments of the man-advantage.
After the penalty had expired, it was the Sabres turn to attack as they took over the final five minutes of the period with the Habs nervously waited for the end of the period. Niemi was forced to come up with some impressive saves to preserve the lead to head into the third period with the lead.
The opening two and a half minutes of the period were spent almost exclusively in the Habs zone with Buffalo completely dominating play. Despite this assertion, they got a single shot off on Niemi, fanning on far too many good scoring chances. The Habs would finally settle down and get out of their zone. The opening half of the frame was sloppy for both teams as passes were all over the place, same as the shots who inexplicably missed the nets even when uncontested.
With six minutes gone, Scherbak was guilty of an obvious tripping penalty for a first Buffalo power play. One minute later, Lehkonen got his stick stuck under the skate of Rasmus Ristolainen sending the Sabres to a full minute of 5-on-3. Full credit to Jordie Benn, Karl Alzner, and Byron Froese who were very disciplined in their positioning allowing them to successfully kill it off.
As even-strength play returned, the Antti Niemi show continued as the Sabres completely dominated play. With two minutes to play, Buffalo opted to pull Ullmark. This would not work for them as a minute later, Byron would be the recipient of a good zone exit by Hudon before sliding home the puck for a 2-0 lead. Buffalo’s net would remain open after the goal and Gallagher also found the back of the empty net to end the game 3-0.
HabsWorld Habs 3 Stars of the Night
1st Star – Artturi Lehkonen
It’s the wrong time of the year for it to happen, but Lehkonen is heating up, much like he did at this time last year. This is a welcome sight after what can only be described as a nightmarish season for the sophomore. Here’s hoping this is the player we’ll see for a much larger portion of next season.
Stats: 1 goal, +1 rating, 2 shots, 3 hits, 16:35 T.O.I.
2nd Star – Antti Niemi
It was far from his flashiest performance since joining the Canadiens, but his play in the first and third periods coupled with a shutout is enough to earn him a second star. I’m not sure if that highlights Niemi’s prowess or his team’s ineptitude.
Stats: 35 saves on 35 shots, 0.00 GAA, 1.000 save %, 60:00 T.O.I.
3rd Star – Jonathan Drouin
While his name did not appear on the scoresheet offensively, he continues to work hard to develop his whole-ice play as an NHL pivot. Tonight, his biggest contribution came when Claude Julien trusted him as a penalty killer when the Sabres got their 5-on-3. For a guy who was recently holding a -27 rating, this is an important logging of ice time for Drouin. It means he’s gaining the trust of the coaching staff, and that only happens with hard work.
Stats: 1 assist, +1 rating, 1 shot, 18:21 T.O.I.
Honourable Mention – Nikita Scherbak
Scherbak is playing some isolated minutes, but he continues to be able to create offensively. I’m not entirely sure where Scherbak will be slotted next season, but he’s shown enough flashes of interesting offensive potential to warrant a serious look for Montreal’s top-9 though he certainly still needs to find some consistency in his 200-foot game.
Stats: 0 points, +1 rating, 2 shots, 16:43 T.O.I.