Ten days ago, the Montreal Canadiens travelled to Western New York for a date with the Buffalo Sabres. The lead-up to the game was marked with an uncertain confidence. On paper, the Canadiens should win. On the ice, the recent Habs seemed plagued by an inability to get past the Sabres.
In the end, any pessimism proved unfounded, as the Canadiens skated to a 3-1 victory at the First Niagara Center. The Habs carried the balance of the play, registering 60% of shot attempts while the score was close. Carey Price was also his usual impenetrable self, allowing only one goal on 25 Sabre shots.
While the Habs would lose their very next match, a tough 3-2 shootout decision at Washington, they've started another streak since then. This time, the Habs will enter their game against Buffalo on a four-game winning streak, and again they enter a winnable game.
The Canadiens' improbable run of eight wins in nine games has been maintained using a number of different methods. The Habs have overwhelmed good teams, like their win over the Minnesota Wild. At other times, they've held their ground against the some of the league's best, grinding out wins over the Penguins and Bruins. Further still, they've played poor games and been fortunate come out on top - look no further than their consecutive victories over the snakebitten New Jersey Devils for evidence of that. This Sabres game will be another varying scenario - the game at the end of a long, four-night work week, where the Habs will have to maintain consistency and composure to earn the win.
What's the blueprint for that potential Sabres victory, you ask? One area of strength is goaltender Ryan Miller, who is playing good hockey in exceptionally trying circumstances. No goaltender with a significant number of starts has faced more shots per start than Miller has this year, and despite that, the Michigan native has maintained a respectable .921 save percentage at even strength. While his defence corps hasn't made it easy on him, Miller has the capacity to take over a game and make it difficult for Montreal to score.
Special teams in the Queen's City have been uninspiring, but again, Buffalo may be able to find an advantage there. While the Habs powerplay efficiency is significantly better than Buffalo's, Buffalo has proven better able to avoid taking penalties in the first place. Buffalo has been shorthanded 50 times this year, to Montreal's 63. The Canadiens are lethal when they get their chances, but the more that Buffalo is on the powerplay, the less that Subban and Markov are performing their wizardry along Buffalo's blue line.
If Buffalo has one more trick up their sleeve, it might be the magic of Matt Moulson. Moulson was known for being a Hab assassin while playing alongside John Tavares on Long Island, and he's carried that title through his first game against Montreal as a Sabre. Moulson's scoring is obviously suffering with his new team - he's gone from being a sidekick on a middling, unlucky team, to a depended-on scorer on an outright disaster of a squad. Moulson is also playing a more defensive role this year, and the cumulative effect of these factors is a significant drop in Moulson's shot output. Of course, this difficult trend did not stop Moulson from putting six shots toward the Habs' net ten days ago, as well as tallying his nearly automatic goal.
So, can the Habs contain the Sabres? On paper, even Ryan Miller should be powerless to stop what has been a formidable Canadiens attack. On paper, Buffalo's propensity toward discipline should be outweighed by the Canadiens skill advantage. On paper, the Sabres are going to need more than the offense that Matt Moulson affords them if they're to threaten the Habs. Of course, nothing is that simple - if there's one thing the Habs' recent streak has showed us, it's that anything can happen once the game leaves paper and hits the ice.
For a look at whether the Sabres should hold on to Miller through their rebuild or cash him in for prospects, some reminiscing back to happier times, and game coverage from six hours southwest of Montreal, check out Die By The Blade.