Two former Adams Division rivals squared off last night at the Bell Centre in a classic four-point, division match.
The Buffalo Sabres were a team clawing their way back to respectability while the Montreal Canadiens were looking at an opportunity to jump into first place in the Northeast division.
The game started well enough for the Habs, who looked like they would skate away with an easy victory, as they jumped out to a 1-0 lead only 4:54 into the game on a Max Pacioretty power play goal. More than just the goal, though, the Canadiens were fully engaged in the match and the Sabres didn't have an answer for their speed.
As such, the Habs continued to skate circles around the Sabres, taking a 2-0 lead in the second on Benoit Pouliot's 13th goal of the season. After that, however, the Canadiens stopped skating; perhaps thinking they would have an easy victory.
Unfortunately for Montreal, the Sabres had other plans.
Buffalo proceeded to turn up the heat, outshooting Montreal 15-8 in the second period and making it a one-goal game on the PP with less than three minutes to play.
The Sabres continued to keep the ice tilted in the Canadiens' end in what amounted to a bit of a sleepy last 30 minutes of the game, eventually tying the game at 2 on Jason Pominville's 13th of the season.
Montreal had a golden opportunity to grab the victory from the clutches of defeat, with a late third period PP that straddled overtime. Unfortunately, they struggled to even keep the puck in the Sabres' zone.
The outcome was left to a shootout to be decided with Carey Price facing down Sabres' rookie Jhonas Enroth for the win. It took 10 rounds of the shootout before a winner was decided, with Jochen Hecht netting the final shot.
This was a game that Montreal should and could have won if they stuck to their game plan that worked so well over the first 30 minutes of the game. Unfortunately, they got lazy, sat back and let the Sabres take the play to them, losing one precious point in the process.
Final score: Sabres 3 Habs 2 (SO)
Habs' scorers: Max Pacioretty (10), Benoit Pouliot (13)
Sabres' scorers: Drew Stafford (24), Jason Pominville (13)
3 stars: 1. Jochen Hecht, 2. Benoit Pouliot, 3. Max Pacioretty
Points of interest
With an assist on Max Pacioretty's 10th goal of the season, Tomas Plekanec picked up his 300th NHL point in his 450th game.
Pierre Gauthier's right-hand-man Larry Carriere will be scouting the next three games of the Nashville Predators. With word that trade talks between the two teams are intensifying, this is sure to throw fuel on the speculation fire.
1. Pacioretty continues to impress
Since taking a puck in the ribs and going to the hospital against these same Buffalo Sabres almost a month ago, Montreal's Pacioretty has been playing like a man possessed.
Moreover, he continues to play like that long-coveted power forward that the Habs have been missing for 15 years.
His aggressive, tenacious play produced the first goal of the game as he drove the puck from the corner to the front then chipped his own rebound up and over Enroth. This is exactly the type of play that has been missing from the Habs arsenal for far too long, and with each game Pacioretty seems to getting better and better at it.
Pacioretty finished the night with one goal, two shots on net, 19:01 of ice time and 4:55 on the man-advantage.
An interesting quirk that I noticed about Pacioretty, while sitting in my seats four rows up from the ice, is that when he is trying to make a play he sticks his tongue out, a la Michael Jordan.
Gotta love that!
2. David Desharnais finally surpassed Scott Gomez for ice time
Yesterday's game featured the three shortest players in the league in the same game.
Nathan Gerbe (5'5"), David Desharnais (5'6") and Brian Gionta (5'7") all prove that short men can play in the "new" NHL, as long as they can skate.
As for Desharnais, he continues to defy all odds and play like the little engine that could. His continued excellent play on both ends of the rink show why he has truly surpassed Gomez as the Canadiens second line center—whether that is acknowledged publicly or not.
Whereas the Gomez line continues to fire blanks, Desharnais' line continues to be a threat every time they are on the ice. And since Ryan White has joined the diminutive center alongside Pouliot, the Canadiens seem to have a potent offensive threat that can provide consistent secondary scoring.
I have been calling for Desharnais to start getting second line minutes for a while now and last night it finally happened.
Desharnais finished the night with one assist, a plus-1 rating, one blocked shot and, most importantly, 18:55 of ice time—3:11 on the power play. Compare these numbers with Gomez's zero points, minus-1, three shots on goal and 18:53 of ice time—4:21 on the power play, and you can see that Desharnais has caught up to Gomez.
More importantly, Desharnais finished the night with 15:44 of even strength time to Gomez's 14:00.
The gauntlet has been thrown.
3. Ryan White has rediscovered his form
Ryan White was the talk of town at training camp this past fall, and when he was cut and sent to Hamilton fans were not happy.
Unfortunately, White hasn't exactly been ripping it up in the AHL, perhaps from shattered expectations after being demoted. As such, when he was finally recalled, due to a myriad of injuries in the Habs' lineup, you had hoped that he could find his preseason form again.
Well, in five games so far, White looks like he has gotten back in touch with the player that took the team by storm at training camp. Even more so over the last two games.
Fast, aggressive, finishing his checks, constantly in the opposition's face and always positioned around the net, White brings exactly the type of game the Habs need in their lineup.
Toughness, speed, grit and skill.
His gritty play creates more room on the ice for his skilled linemates, Desharnais and Pouliot, to either make plays or get open for shots.
White finished the night with a plus-1, one shot on goal, four hits and 14:49 of ice time.
Not a bad night's work.
4. Despite the loss, Price carried the load
I'll keep this point short and sweet because, sadly, it is a recurring theme with the Canadiens this year.
After dominating play for about half of the game, Montreal simply stopped skating. And, as we have seen time and time again this season, when they stop skating they usually have a tough time winning games.
If you are a small team and your strength is speed, then you had better play to your strength in order to have the best chance of winning. And for some reason, on too many occasions, the Habs don't.
So while Price was bored stiff over the first 25 or so minutes of the game, he once again had to keep his team in the match as they sat back and let the Sabres come at them.
Price made save after save to keep the game close and tied in the third. But he saved his best for last, making a spectacular glove save in the dying seconds of overtime, sending the game to a shootout.
Win, lose or draw, Price continues to be a rock for the Habs and is my pick for team MVP.
5. The youth movement
With the recall of Brendan Nash from Hamilton—with Jaroslav Spacek on the sidelines due to injury—the Canadiens had a full seven players in their roster last night who are rookies; Nash, White, Desharnais, P.K. Subban, Yannick Weber, Pacioretty and Lars Eller—who was in the press box.
Five of those players started the year in Hamilton and, if you throw Price into the mix, you can see that the Habs have a serious youth movement that is in full effect right now.
Whereas the Habs' development program has taken a beating over the years and has failed to properly bring along too many players, looking at the game last night you can see that they have turned the corner in the department.
Not only are players like Desharnais, Pacioretty, Weber and White filling in for injured or underperforming players, but they are actually making an impact on the ice. This is the only reason why, the loss aside, the Habs continue to win games and climb the standings despite missing Andrei Markov, Josh Gorges and Michael Cammalleri from the lineup.
As for Eller, who was a healthy scratch last night, like Pacioretty last year, he simply looks lost on the ice and is completely ineffective. The fact that he has been playing with the Habs' two least effective players doesn't help, but if he is going to be sat in favour of Travis Moen, I would rather see him sent down to Hamilton.
Let him play 20 minutes a game with top PP time, regain his confidence and come back next year to make an impact.
Because right now, it's just not working.
Standings and Next Game
With the Boston Bruins losing 4-3 to the Toronto Maple Leafs in regulation last night, the Habs missed a golden opportunity to pass them in the standings. They did get one point in their shootout loss, however, tying them at 69 with the Bruins who are still in first place in the Northeast by virtue of their one game in hand.
Montreal is still in fifth, five points behind the Penguins and one point ahead of the Washington Capitals who have one game in hand. Behind the Caps are the New York Rangers (64 points), the Carolina Hurricanes (62 points, one game in hand), the Sabres (60 points, three games in hand) and the Atlanta Thrashers (60 points).
The Canadiens now travel to Edmonton to take on the Edmonton Oilers on Thursday evening before facing the Calgary Flames on Sunday in the outdoor, Heritage Classic.
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