When the Sabres and Habs last faced off on November 8th, they held similar records. The Sabres won the game 6-5 in overtime as both Carey Price and Linus Ullmark struggled for much of the contest. Since that contest, the Sabres won six in a row (seven counting the win against the Habs) while the Habs played .500 hockey leaving the Sabres a whopping five points ahead of the Montreal Canadiens in the standings.
Some lineup changes happened for Montreal following Thursday’s debacle against the Devils as recently called up Brett Kulak made his Habs debut playing next to Victor Mete. Karl Alzner was also making a return to the line-up; he was playing next to David Schlemko. This meant that Xavier Ouellet and Mike Reilly were back in the stands for this Black Friday 4 pm start. Charles Hudon was also sent to the stands in favour of Matthew Peca returning to the lineup. Interesting in this change was that Peca was used on the left of Artturi Lehkonen and Jesperi Kotkaniemi. Antti Niemi got the start in net against Carter Hutton.
Despite a vastly different match offered by the two teams, the result was identical to the November 8th meeting as Buffalo defended their home rink with a 3-2 overtime victory. Of note, Max Domi was blanked from the scoresheet for the first time in 11 games, thus ending his scoring streak.
The game started relatively slow as both team’s defensive coverage was quite adequate, forcing many one and done chances. Niemi completed two simple saves that he made look complicated, while Hutton made one nice stop on a point-blank shot from Michael Chaput.
As the midway point of the period approached, play remained relatively even in terms of quantity of chances despite the Habs usual defensive coverage awarding a much higher quality of chances to the Sabres. Positive observations for the opening ten minutes was the play of Kulak, as well as the fourth line of Chaput, Nicolas Deslauriers, and Kenny Agostino, the latter of which is really growing on me.
With 7:27 left in the period, Max Domi lost a faceoff which resulted in a point shot from Jake McCabe. The shot was deflected at the hash marks by Conor Sheary to beat Niemi and hit the post squarely. Unfortunately for Niemi, Casey Mittelstadt beat Domi out of the faceoff circle to the front of the net, so he was all alone to tap in the rebound for the first goal of the game.
The goal gave the Sabres life as the rest of the period was played with the Sabres skating downhill. With under two minutes to play, Kyle Okposo skated wide and around Schlemko, forcing the Habs defender to drive him into the post to avoid a high-quality scoring chance. Schlemko was sent to box for the play, but the Habs were able to escape the first power play of the night unscathed.
Strong plays by Jordie Benn and Phillip Danault started the second period as they killed the few seconds left to the Schlemko penalty by getting a shorthanded scoring chance that Hutton turned away. The next good scoring chance also belonged to the Habs as Brendan Gallagher tipped a Jeff Petry point shot which forced Hutton to make a nice save early on.
After a brief Sabres possession shift, the Domi line attacked. It was Jonathan Drouin missing a great scoring chance as he appeared surprised by the nice cross-ice pass from Schlemko in the slot.
With nearly six minutes expired, the Canadiens would take yet another too many men on the ice penalty. I don’t have the stat in front of me, but they must be leading the league for these penalties. The only Buffalo scoring chance came when Jeff Skinner ran an obvious interference on Peca that went uncalled. Niemi was up to the task and stopped the Sabres which likely meant a moment of relief for the official.
After another few minutes where the Habs skated circled around the Sabres in the offensive zone, the blue line let them down again. Schlemko would be guilty of his second obvious penalty of the night as he took down Eichel who had also gotten around him with too much ease. This third Sabres man advantage of the night was once again killed off brilliantly by a Habs penalty kill that was working methodically.
As soon as the penalty ended, Danault skated down the wing, waited for Gallagher to converge on Hutton before beating him with a shot the netminder would love to have back. However, the replay clearly showed that Gallagher deliberately kicked the puck in the net. Where I think the NHL gets this wrong (and I mean the league, not necessarily the officials here) is that since the play goes to a replay, and Gallagher is obviously kicking the puck in because he is being held with both hands by the defender in front of the net, shouldn’t the officials have the leniency to also give the Sabres a holding infraction? Regardless, the score remained 1-0.
The Habs continued to dominate the period and it would finally pay off. A strong breakout by Tomas Tatar allowed Danault and Gallagher to isolate Nathan Beaulieu on a mini 2-on-1. Danault crashing the net provided the room for Gallagher to take a shot and beat Hutton low on the blocker side to tie the game heading to the third period. As the period expired, the Sabres took their first penalty of the night as Zach Bogosian was called for roughing, sending the Habs to their first power play of the night. The first 30 seconds in the second period was ineffective.
The Habs really squandered the advantage to start the period as they never even really gained the Sabres zone. With the penalty over, Buffalo really took over the early portion of the period with chance after chance that Niemi had to turn away. Luckily for Niemi who was at times really fighting the puck, the Habs defensive effort was much improved in limiting second and third chances, notably by Petry and Kulak.
As Domi let go his best shot of the night with 11 minutes to play, Buffalo’s Jason Pominville was penalized for holding. Since the top unit was on the ice drawing the penalty, Julien opted for his second unit to start the advantage and it paid immediate dividends. Danault won the faceoff and Schlemko opted for a shot from the blueline since he had many bodies screening Hutton. The shot missed Agostino before Andrew Shaw tipped it home for the Habs’ first and only lead of the night.
The Sabres immediately fired back as they buzzed around the Habs zone forcing Niemi to make several key saves. Niemi couldn’t keep the puck out for the entirety of the period though. With under three minutes to play, a seemingly harmless shot by Bogosian was mishandled by Niemi and a big juicy rebound was awarded to Jeff Skinner who batted home his sixteenth goal of the season. The Sabres would continue to play in the Montreal zone and hit a post with 30 seconds left.
Considering the end of the third period and Montreal’s 0-4 record in the extra frame this season, the outcome of this one was all but guaranteed. The first shift of the overtime was spent entirely in the Montreal zone, but Max Domi changed that momentum. His only presence on the ice gave the Habs their only scoring chance of the frame. Domi then coughed up the puck and made a great defensive play to recover his mistake.
Unfortunately, Domi’s strong defensive play also came with a slash to the hands of Ristolainen, awarding the Sabres their fourth power play, this on a 4-on-3 opportunity in overtime. They spent a minute 33 seconds passing the puck around the Montreal zone before Skinner was able to jump on a rebound with everyone scrambling around him to bury his second of the night to end the game.
HabsWorld Habs 3 Stars
1st Star – Phillip Danault
Consistently reliable and responsible without the puck, it’s almost impossible not to underline Danault every time he gets his name on the scoresheet because he does everything else right with regularity. I understand that Jesperi Kotkaniemi is the shiny new toy with so much more offensive potential when compared to Danault. But in his first season in North America, the clamouring about replacing Danault with Kotkaniemi in the top-six is premature, especially when one considers Danault’s play so far this season.
Stats: 2 assists, 0 (+/-), 3 shots, 17:59 T.O.I.
2nd Star – Kenny Agostino
Agostino delivered on Friday night the performance that the coaching staff has been wanting from Charles Hudon all season long. Demoted to the fourth line and obviously playing with the less talented Deslauriers and Chaput, Agostino rolled up his sleeves, worked his butt off and created offensive opportunities for the line with his strong forecheck and slick hands. There was no pouting, no veiled comments to the press, and no dump and change while waiting for his next opportunity on a higher line. As mentioned earlier, Agostino is a player that is really growing on me as a fan as it appears that the young man is reliable and consistent in his effort and style of play. He was Montreal’s only forward who played a full 60 minutes Friday.
Stats: 0 points, 0 (+/-), 1 shot, 13:23 T.O.I.
3rd Star – Brett Kulak
Positive first impression accomplished, Kulak offered size, mobility, and good decision making for his contest for the Habs. If he can sprinkle in some consistency, Marc Bergevin might need to move more than one defender to make room. Considering what he was acquired for, allow me to be skeptical of seeing Kulak playing at this level with regularity. Then again, Paul Byron was acquired for less from the very same Flames.
Stats: 0 points, 0 (+/-), 2 shots, 1 hit, 19:14 T.O.I.
Honourable Mention – Antti Niemi
Niemi will certainly never win any style battles when he plays the goaltending position. Due to his awkward style, rebounds remain a problem for the veteran. Despite all these aspects, Niemi fights hard to stay in position and make the next save. He did so throughout this game as he faced 40 shots and only allowed three goals. He was a big part of the Habs gaining the overtime point on this night.
Stats: 40 shots, 37 saves, .925 sv %, 2.86 G.A.A., 63:06 T.O.I.