It was to be a Friday-night faceoff between two NHL cellar-dwellers — or at least that’s the direction the Sabres were heading, too, with a 2-7-1 record in the last 10, almost identical to the Habs’ 2-6-2.
Only one of these teams would turn it around, though — and once again it was the Habs at the losing end. Good for next summer’s draft, but frustrating to no end to both the fans and the players.
It Hurts at First
With a game against the Penguins coming up 24 hours later, Dominique Ducharme gave Samuel Montembeault the start for the Habs, facing the former Hab Dustin Tokarski, who had been traded to Anaheim some five years earlier. In the faceoff circle to start was Jake Evans again, as he, Brendan Gallagher and Artturi Lehkonen were being rewarded for their recent play.
After just four minutes of play, though, after the Sabres dumped the puck in, Lehkonen was skating around the end boards, to pick up speed for an attack, but Jeff Skinner stripped him of the puck before he made it to the blue line.
Victor Olofsson snatched that loose puck and fed it to Tage Thompson on the right side of the net. A constellation of white sweaters were gathered in front of the net, but none of them were covering Thompson, who was able to one-time it over Montembeault’s left pad. An early lead for Buffalo, then.
A little before the midpoint of the period it looked as if the Sabres had doubled that lead, as Montembeault cleared the puck from behind the net directly onto the stick of Kyle Okposo. A quick pass from him found Brett Murray open in front of the net, but a sliding Montembeault was able to turn away the shot by the time the Sabres forward got it off.
A few minutes later, Zerngus Girgensons snapped a shot from behind Ben Chiarot and onto the crossbar, and then managed to hit the outside of a goalpost on the same shift.
The sound of the goalpost seemed to wake up the Habs, though, and the pressure shifted to the Sabres’ zone. At 12:44 it paid off as Tyler Toffoli and Josh Anderson broke into the Buffalo zone; they lost the puck to Colin Miller, but just a few seconds later Anderson stripped it from Skinner in front of the Sabres’ net and snapped it over the blocker of Dustin Tokarski to tie the game at one.
The pressure didn’t end there, and the Habs finished the first looking much better than it had appeared in mid-period. Petry sent a cross-ice pass to Toffoli about a minute after the goal, but the shot went wide of the net. Then Ryan Poehling had his chance on a 2-1 odd-man break, but could not score as Henri Jokiharju got his stick on the shot.
And, finally, Toffoli and Anderson had another odd-man opportunity late in the period. Toffoli was knocked down to his knees by the Buffalo defender but rapidly clambered back up onto his skates to get off another shot on Tokarski.
An even score at the end of the period, then with shots 15-12 in the Habs’ favour, although the Sabres out-chanced the Habs 11-9.
Two Giveaways Is All It Takes
The second period start was very much a blue affair, with the Sabres pressing and maintaining control in Montreal’s zone for much of it. It took seven minutes before the Habs could even register a shot on Tokarski, and then it was a Toffoli slapper from a nice soft pass by Christian Dvorak.
It seemed to invigorate the Canadiens, though, and the Anderson-Toffoli-Dvorak unit hemmed the Sabres in their own zone, although they could not get a shot on net. As the Habs changed to Lehkonen, Evans and Gallagher, they continued the pressure.
However, as Jeff Petry circled deeper into the zone, he lost control of the puck, and Vinnie Hinostroza, Okposo and Cody Eakin streaked off into the attack. Only Chiarot was back, and with Okposo creating havoc in front of the net, Hinostroza was able to find Eakin on the opposite side of the net and a quick one-timer gave the Sabres a 2-1 lead.
Two and a half minutes later, the Habs were handed a recovery opportunity on a golden platter as Evans was hit with a high stick, drawing blood, and sending Murray into the sin bin for a four-minute stay.
The power play looked good to start, maintaining possession and making crisp passes. Nick Suzuki almost lost the puck near the blue line but recovered to keep the play alive. But with 90 seconds left in the penalty, Chris Wideman lost the puck and Girgensons dashed off on a shorthanded break. A solid save by Montembeault, to the team’s relief, but that was not all.
Just 20 seconds later, Jonathan Drouin’s pass to Suzuki hit the latter on a skate, enabling Cody Eakin to snatch the puck. He streaked away with Okposo and only Wideman back to defend for the Habs. Eakin passed to Okposo, who was open at the front of the net, undisturbed by Suzuki, and Okposo was able to bash the puck in on a second attempt from his own rebound, giving the Sabres a two-goal lead.
David Savard took away any recovery opportunity by tripping Eakin with 2:17 left in the period, putting Buffalo on a power play. Montembeault turned away four shots, but the Habs still went to the dressing room two goals down and only 20 minutes remaining.
The shots were 14-2 for Buffalo and the scoring chances a stark 8-0 for them, in spite of the four-minute man-advantage for the Habs.
Only Three Minutes In
The Habs had more energy to start the final frame, but it was only good for a few minutes.
Only three minutes had gone by when Alexander Romanov caught the much-bigger Thompson on a solid check in the neutral zone, but the big man got up quickly to follow the play, with Romanov being caught behind the play.
In the Habs’ zone, Lehkonen corralled the puck, but Skinner appeared to pull him down. Olofsson took control of the puck, finding Thompson speeding towards the net, and with only Mattias Norlinder in position, the Sabre forward made no mistake in finding the top corner of the net and putting the game out of reach.
Caufield made a solid back-checking play on a streaking Dylan Cozens at the five-minute mark, keeping the Buffalo centreman from getting a wide-open opportunity on net. Skinner was only able to make a backhand shot, and Montembeault easily got his pad in front of that to block it.
Skinner had two more scoring chances near the eight-minute mark, both resulting from the Habs’ defensive-zone fumbles, and again Montembeault had to come up with solid saves.
Ducharme turned had his blender turned on high in the third, looking for a line combination that might be able to put the puck in the net, but to little effect. There were some real scoring chances — more high-danger ones than in the first two periods put together — but once again the Habs were lacking the ability to finish the plays.
With just minutes remaining, they did seem to find some additional energy, with pressure first by the Evans line, and then with Toffoli, Dvorak and Anderson, but Tokarski stopped everything they were able to throw at him.
Evans and Lehkonen did break in again, but Tokarski made a routine-looking save on the Finn’s slap shot at the 3:30 mark. Not much later, Anderson stole the puck in the Buffalo zone and Dvorak had a good look at a mostly open net but sent the puck wide. And then, both Caufield and Drouin had scoring chances in a single shift, but again had nothing to show for those.
So, the Habs came up empty in the third period, too, outshot 13-9 — and 27-11 over the last two periods.
HW Habs Three Stars
First Star: Josh Anderson (1g, 1a, 4 shots, +0, 20:08 TOI) actually scored a goal, and that must count for something. He and Toffoli had multiple breaks in, but the finish is generally lacking, a common theme with this edition of the Canadiens.
Second Star: Jake Evans (0g, 0a, 2 shots, -3, 14:16 TOI) led his line with energy and effort, and drew what could have made a difference, a double minor against the Sabres. It may be the energy line or the third line, but it’s the Habs’ best combination at the moment.
Third Star: Samuel Montembeault (39 shots, 35 saves, 0.897 save percentage) could not be blamed for the loss, making countless solid saves when the Habs gave the puck away at either end of the ice.
Honourable Mention: Artturi Lehkonen (0g, 0a, 5 shots, -3, 15:22 TOI) had a -3 rating like his linemates but played far better than that might indicate. The trio recorded 5 of the 21 shots registered by the Habs forwards and 5 of the 11 hits.