The Buffalo Sabres find themselves in a precarious position as the 2013 season begins to draw to its close. With eight games remaining on their schedule, they are eight points and three teams out of the Eastern Conference's final playoff spot. While a win would keep their playoff hopes alive, their window of opportunity to qualify for the postseason is closing quickly. A loss tonight would push them even closer to the brink.
If the Sabres were to lose, and to ultimately find themselves out of position for the playoffs, they would also likely find themselves out of position for the type of big reward that awaits many of the NHL's bottom-feeders. Despite dealing captain Jason Pominville for prospects and picks, as well as shipping out veteran defenseman Robyn Regehr, the Sabres have managed to keep pace with their closest peers in the East. As the Sabres high-level mismanagement culminates, the organization finds themselves standing at a crossroads, with the playoffs and the top of the NHL draft fading from view equally quickly.
That same misfortune has been characteristic of the Canadiens' encounters with the Sabres this year. Despite heavily outplaying the Sabres for most of their four games to date, the Habs have found mixed results, including a 6-1 blowout win, a 5-4 botch-up shootout loss, and two more one-goal losses where the Canadiens simply could not put the puck in the net.
If they wish to avoid a similar fate in tonight's game, the Canadiens will have to solve Sabres netminder Ryan Miller. Miller has been staunch and successful against the Canadiens in his career, stopping 92.4% of shots and winning 62.5% of games in which the Canadiens are his opponents. Miller has been decent all year, posting a .914% save percentage in 34 starts this year. While he was the victim of four goals in just two periods of work when the Habs smoked the Sabres earlier this year, he was also the engineer of the Sabres more recent 2-1 win, in which the Canadiens simply could not buy a goal.
While the Sabres can normally count on a solid performance from the former Vezina Trophy winner Miller, the Canadiens will be looking for stellar work from their newly-extended back-up. Peter Budaj will get the start this evening, and while he has only faced the Sabres five times in his career, he has a solid .922 save percentage to go with three wins. Budaj took the shootout loss in his only match-up with the Sabres this year, as his team fell apart around him in the game's waning moments.
The Canadiens rookie sensations, Alex Galchenyuk and Brendan Gallagher, have each posted three points in their first four games against the Sabres, and will be looking for more in their quest to appease the insatiable counting-stat appetite of the Calder Trophy voters. The Canadiens will be looking out for one of the NHL's most dangerous players, Thomas Vanek, as he looks to add to the five goals he has already put past the Habs this year.