The latest chapter of the “must win March” saw the Sabres visit the Bell Centre. In the last few weeks, the Habs have struggled in games that they should have won, so this presented an interesting test. Add to this the fact that the Sabres had won all three contests between the two teams this season, and Saturday’s tilt was a significant test for the Habs.
Carey Price was in net for Montreal and this is important considering Sunday’s game against the Hurricanes as there is no way anyone other than Price is starting that one. With Saturday being the only spot in the schedule to start anyone other than Price, playing him here signalled that Price is in net until the team is in the playoffs or eliminated. Buffalo opted to start Carter Hutton.
Claude Julien stuck with his now regular lineup, with no changes to the players or alignment. It worked out for Julien as the Habs were not always at their best but they gutted one out and found a way to win the game 7-4.
The Canadiens started the game tentatively and the Sabres took full advantage of the situation as they controlled the play for the initial five minutes even though the 3-2 shot clock suggested that the Habs were holding their own.
They picked up the pace as all four lines were able to establish dangerous shifts in the offensive zone in the period’s second quarter. Perhaps the best line of the sequence was the Jesperi Kotkaniemi trio that was dangerous on all three of their shifts with their best scoring chance coming from a Jonathan Drouin one-timer in the low slot.
The second half of the period saw the play return to the Habs zone and this time Buffalo capitalized. After Price made a series of scrambling saves, Sam Reinhart and Casey Mittelstadt completed a give-and-go with the former besting Price with a shot along the ice.
Kyle Okposo took a penalty a minute later for a slash on Victor Mete. The power play was a complete disaster as the Habs never even got set up in the Sabres zone. Buffalo then got their first chance with the man advantage as Artturi Lehkonen was guilty of an offensive zone infraction. Their power play was as effective as Montreal’s as Hutton had to come up with the more difficult saves. The period ended 1-0, with a 12-8 shot advantage for the Habs.
The second period was dominated by the Habs, but when they made mistakes, they were big ones. In the end, they won the period and ended the period ahead, but it’s not the type of play a team wants heading into tomorrow night’s game against the Hurricanes.
The Habs came out strong and controlled play and were rewarded with the first three goals of the period. The first of these came when Jordie Benn pinched and was successful in keeping a play alive. The puck bounced to Max Domi who completed a spin-o-rama pass to Andrew Shaw. Shaw passed to the front of the net where a streaking Lehkonen dove to reach the puck but was successful in tipping the puck in the net to tie the game.
Four minutes later, Phillip Danault came in on a forecheck and the puck ended up between the two defenders. Danault dove to reach the puck and pushed it to the front of the net where Brendan Gallagher was waiting and quickly wristed it home for a 2-1 lead.
The third goal came five minutes later when Domi won his battle against Mittelstadt, skated with the puck all the way up the ice before sending a pass to the centre of the zone to Shaw who quickly shot and beat Hutton for a 3-1 lead.
The Sabres refused to go quietly as they responded 30 seconds later. After a Christian Folin delay of game penalty was called, the Sabres took all of nine seconds to score as Rasmus Dahlin walked the blue line before finding Alexander Nylander who rocketed home a one-timer to cut the lead.
Marco Scandella tied it up 75 seconds later after Drouin gave up on his backcheck that created a 3-on-2 and saw Scandella skate in uncontested and beat Price over the glove.
Luckily for Drouin, Paul Byron would score two minutes later after blocking a shot in the defensive zone. The block sent him and Jordan Weal on a 2-on-1 where Weal opted to shoot, but Byron had the rebound bounce off his skate and into the net. Despite a 20-7 shot advantage in the period, the Habs skated away with a slim 4-3 lead.
Considering the stakes at play and the atrocious defensive efforts in the second period, it was not surprising to see the Habs play a cautious third since they managed to get away with the lead. After an uneventful first eight minutes, the Sabres got their first good push in Montreal territory, but excellent work by Benn and Folin kept the Sabres from getting to the slot.
On the very next shift, Tomas Tatar entered the offensive zone with control and dropped the puck to Shea Weber who skated around the Sabres zone before finding Gallagher in the slot for his second in the game and a 5-3 lead.
With 11 minutes to play, Shaw got hit in the corner by Scandella and skated back only to charge at Evan Rodrigues. As the crowd assembled around him, he grabbed Jeff Skinner and dropped his gloves. Skinner did not drop his and as a result, the Habs were shorthanded for the next four minutes. After some excellent efforts by Weber, Benn, Lehkonen, Armia, and Danault, the Habs killed the entire four minutes. However, before Shaw could really get back in the play, a Skinner shot created a rebound that Jack Eichel put home to make the score 5-4 with 6:47 to play.
The Sabres had momentum for all of two shifts until Zemgus Girgensons held on to Tatar attempting to negate a 2-on-1. The first minute of the power play was once again terrible, but the second unit saw Domi enter the zone in control of the puck. Domi then found Jeff Petry on the blue line, who sent the puck back to Domi who had room to skate in and use the Gallagher screen to beat Hutton short side for a 6-4 lead.
Kotkaniemi then hit the crossbar before the Sabres pulled Hutton with over two minutes to play. Hutton was barely at the bench when Tatar got the puck at centre ice and sent it into the empty net to seal the victory.
HabsWorld Habs 3 Stars
1st Star – Max Domi
When Lehkonen was placed on the team’s second line, many wondered why. The offensive freedom it has granted Domi appears to be why. Domi had himself a game as he started with a spin-o-rama assist before his second helper came from his own defensive efforts. His goal in the third then came after three minutes of putrid power play time. Domi finished a play he started (just about the only controlled power play zone entrance seen all night) and just like that the PP was at 50%.
Stats: 1 goal, 2 assists, +1, 4 shots, 14:34 T.O.I.
2nd Star – Brendan Gallagher
A few seasons ago, GM Marc Bergevin said that some players get you to the playoffs, others get you through them. This paraphrase of mine is being proven wrong by Gallagher who has become a rare player in the NHL that shines in both situations. Gallagher is likely to run out of time before reaching a 40-goal season, but the fact that it can even be discussed is amazing considering the hand injuries and the thought that this young player was being written off only a few offseasons ago. Imagine the results if Jonathan Drouin could play with even half the heart Gallagher does.
Stats: 2 goals, 1 assist, +3, 9 shot, 1 hit, 15:31 T.O.I.
3rd Star – Tomas Tatar
Tatar continues his somewhat quiet push to career-best numbers as a regular force at the top of the lineup. His best attribute is the way he can control the play and slow it down to find the pass he wants. In this game, a three-point night for him, his most impressive play to me was 100% pure determination.
The Sabres have scored a minute ago and have followed that up with two dominant shifts. The Habs the puck on what appears to be an inoffensive 2-on-1. Tatar head fakes his check and then tries to power through the much bigger Girgensons, so much so that he draws a penalty on the play. The Habs score on the power play and never look back. Leading by example.
Stats: 1 goal, 2 assists, +3, 1 shot, 4 hits, 15:02 T.O.I.
Honourable Mentions – Phillip Danault and Jordie Benn
Danault had two assists on the night and his line was +3 as he once again leads the way defensively on this team. With a stat line like this, I had to at least mention his good game.
Danault’s Stats: 2 assists, +3, 1 shot, 2 hits, 16:15 T.O.I.
I got into a Twitter conversation today about the unsung players on the Habs and my answer was Jordie Benn whenever he plays on the third pairing. Easily overwhelmed when playing higher in the lineup, Benn has been a stabilizing force on the bottom pairing and this was a perfect example of his great play since the return of Shea Weber (minus the few games they brought him back up to the top-4). On Montreal’s first goal, it’s a well-timed pinch by Benn that keeps the play alive and creates havoc with Buffalo’s players completely out of coverage. Then, with a one-goal lead in the third, he buckled down defensively and defended well enough to give his team time to take the lead, and that’s not even counting the massive effort on the four-minute penalty to Shaw.
Benn’s Stats: 0 points, 0 (+/-), 3 shots, 3 hits, 19:26 T.O.I.