The Buffalo Sabres, a team who until recently was not even in the playoff picture, came to the Bell Centre last night with one thing in mind: victory.
Oh sure, the Montreal Canadiens wanted to win, too, but not as badly as Buffalo did.
The Sabres played desperate hockey, as they have been doing for the last two months, and the result was a well-earned defeat of the Canadiens at the Bell Centre.
Montreal didn't exactly play horribly—they were thoroughly out-skated and out-played for most of the game—but they clearly didn't "need" the points as badly as Buffalo and it showed on the ice.
The Habs outshot the Sabres 31-24 on the night, but Buffalo did an excellent job of keeping them mostly to the outside. In addition, they made sure that any rebounds were quickly cleared or covered by Ryan Miller, who played an outstanding game.
This one was a true goaltending battle with two of the best netminders in the league facing off. Carey Price was once again the only reason Montreal still had a chance to tie this game with a minute to play.
While Miller wasn't tested that much over the first 30 minutes, the Habs absolutely peppered him over the final period and a half as they tried to tie the game at one.
But Miller was in fine form last night, turning aside shot after shot as Montreal pressed for the equalizer.
However with the Canadiens down by one, less than a minute to play and Price on the bench for the extra attacker,
Andrei Kostitsyn turned the puck over at the offensive blueline. P.K. Subban tried to cover up for AK46's mistake but, pressured by Nathan Gerbe, turned the puck over to him in the neutral zone.
Gerbe grabbed the puck and fired his second of the game into the empty net with 22 seconds to play, ending any hopes of a comeback.
Final score: Sabres 2 - Habs 0
Habs scorers: None
Sabres scorers: Nathan Gerbe (12, 13)
Three stars: 1. Ryan Miller, 2. Carey Price, 3. Nathan Gerbe
1. Subban and the Wiz
The Canadiens power play, which has only produced two goals over the last 22 opportunities, has not been getting it done for Montreal recently.
Despite its struggles, P.K. Subban and James Wizniewski continue to look incredibly dangerous while playing the point with the man-advantage.
The real culprit of the PP's demise seems to be the lack of a constant physical presence in front of the net, namely Max Pacioretty, and it is becoming more and more apparent what a difference he made.
That being said, P.K. and the Wiz have a great give-and-go as they both have hard shots, both can pass the puck well from the back end and are good at setting each other up for one-timers.
This means that teams can't overplay one or the other but rather have to keep an eye on both players. As such, their back and forth puck movement often disrupts the opposition's box, leading to scoring chances.
When Michael Cammalleri is on his game—he is currently playing injured and clearly not 100 percent—he adds another element to the Habs' arsenal with him, Subban and Wizniewski creating a triangle of doom on the PP.
With Pacioretty far from guaranteed for the first round of the playoffs, the Habs need much more from Cammalleri.
Maybe it's time to put Travis Moen on the power play and tell him to park his butt in front of the opposing goaltender!
2. The Sabres could be dangerous come playoff time.
The Sabres play a hermetic system that is not all that different from the Canadiens' style. Shutting down the neutral zone and forcing turnovers, Buffalo feeds off their opponents' mistakes.
In addition, with players like Nathan Gerbe, Tim Connolly and Thomas Vanek among others, they possess a ton of speed.
There were several times last night, particularly in the first, when the Canadiens had a lot of trouble containing the Sabres' speedy cycle. On two occasions, the Habs' attempt to contain them resulted in tripping penalties—to Hal Gill and P.K. Subban.
For a team that was out of the playoff picture for most of the year, the Sabres are playing some truly inspired hockey lately. Playoff hockey, one might say. Add the excellent play of Ryan Miller to the mix, and this is a team that is primed to cause a first-round upset.
3. Subban was a little too fancy.
Two days after the best single-game offensive output of his still-young NHL career, P.K. Subban showed why he still has a lot to learn.
Whereas Subban has been calm, patient and much more settled since being paired with Hal Gill, last night he showed flashes of his inexperienced play from the first 20 games of the season.
It almost seemed like his hat trick and all the attention it garnered him went to his head. No longer was Subban waiting to make the right play, instead he was forcing things, trying overly fancy plays and, overall, being less effective.
It wasn't so much that Subban played poorly last night, as he was shadowing Thomas Vanek all game and did a great job of shutting him down.
However, early in the game he seemed to be making more low-percentage plays than we have been used to seeing from him lately.
But, in typical Subban style, he quickly reined in his form.
It is in times like this that we are reminded that despite his excellent play this season, Subban is only 21 years old. He'll learn, like all players, not too get too high and not to get too low.
4. A battle of top goaltenders.
What a show Miller and Price put on last night!
Price in particular played out of his mind, keeping Montreal in the game as the Sabres barraged their zone for most of the game.
As for Miller, while he wasn't much in the early going, he was on the ball over the last half of game as Montreal pressed for the tie.
Montreal suddenly came to life in the dying minutes of the second, seizing the momentum and blitzing the Sabres zone. But each time they had a shot, rebound or goal-mouth scramble, Miller was there to keep the puck out, despite sometimes making the save with his back!
With both goaltenders in top form last night, it just added to the playoff feel of the game.
Could last night be a preview of the starting goaltenders for Canada and USA in Sochi 2014?
I think it's a distinct possibility.
5. Andrei Kostitsyn has come into his own, but is it too late?
Last night with the entire Montreal lineup struggling to get it going, Andrei Kostitsyn was their most consistent player. Sure, he didn't score any goals but he was active and effective in all three zones—third period turnover aside.
The more the season progresses, the more AK46 looks like he has turned the corner as a player and perhaps come into his own.
This is about more than just points, as Kostitsyn is working hard offensively and defensively whether the team is winning or losing.
So while Jacques Martin's system isn't one that will help AK46 score 35 goals, it has definitely made him a more well rounded, two-way player.
Since being paired with Lars Eller, Kostitsyn has been one of the most productive forwards with 12 points (6G, 6A) in his last 14 games. The Habs are 9-4-1 over that span.
His 19 goals are third best on the Habs and his 41 points have him tied for second overall for total points with Brian Gionta and Michael Cammalleri. All of this while averaging only 15:50 of ice time.
So what do the Canadiens do with him this summer?
As an RFA at season's end, will the Canadiens elect to keep him? Paying a third line player $3 million-plus is not smart management and that makes me think the Habs will move him rather than retain his services.
I'm not sure if that is the best move or not, as AK finally seems to get Martin's system and is playing some good two-way hockey. That being said, the determining factor will be his performance from here until the end of the playoffs.
If he can keep playing well, win or lose, and can keep contributing in all three zones, he might just be able to convince management that he is worth keeping. I think it's a long shot but anything's possible.
Standings and Next Game
The loss to the Sabres hurts Montreal in more ways than one. Not only do they fail to climb in the standings, but with the Bruins winning last night, Montreal failed to keep pace.
Moreover, with Boston holding two games in hand barring some kind of major losing streak from the Bs, it seems highly unlikely that Montreal can catch them before the end of the season.
The Habs really needed a clean sweep this week.
That being said, Montreal is still in sixth in the East with 87 points, two behind Tampa and three behind Boston with one and two games in hand, respectively.
The Rangers, winners of five in a row, are three points behind the Habs and the Sabres round out the top eight with 81 points and a game in hand.
Montreal now travels to Boston for their most highly anticipated game of the year against the Bruins on Thursday. It will be the final regular season game between these two teams and their first since the Zdeno Chara/Max Pacioretty incident.
Thursday's game is be the must-watch game of the season for all hockey fans!
Kamal is a freelance Habs writer, Senior Writer/Editor-in-Chief of HabsAddict.com, Montreal Canadiens Blogger on Hockeybuzz.com and Habs writer on TheFranchise.ca. Kamal is also a weekly contributor to the Sunday Shinny on The Team 990 (AM 990) every Sunday from 8 - 9 AM. Listen live at http://www.team990.com/
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