The Ottawa Senators are a desperate team.
In a critical, nationally broadcast affair worth four invaluable points, the Senators weathered an early storm. They survived three first period Canadiens powerplays, and emerged from a period in which they were dominated in a 1-1 tie. Then, they took advantage of one of several odd man rushes, staking themselves to a lead on a Zack Smith breakaway. Next, they they found two more goals in quick succession, giving themselves a near insurmountable 4-1 lead with four minutes to go in the final frame.
What happened in those final four minutes, and the first 90 seconds of overtime, was one of the most improbable events in recent Canadiens history. First, the much derided Lars Eller, he of a 24 game goalless drought, banged home a poorly-controlled Robin Lehner rebound to make the game 4-2.
Minutes later, the same spontaneously constructed trio of Eller, Brian Gionta, and Alex Galchenyuk scored again, as P.K. Subban delayed at the point before putting the puck on Gionta's tape for a quick tip.
Then, under ten seconds to go in the third period, Andrei Markov rifled a shot into Lehner's pad, but the ensuing scramble did not produce a goal. The puck was thrown back to the blue line, cycled to Subban, and in a display of unreal hockey sense, Subban passed up a shot from the top of the circle to feed a wide open Desharnais. DD corralled the pass, popped it over Lehner, and sent an ecstatic team to overtime.
Those three goals were improbable enough, but the game ended in an even more unlikely fashion. Francis Bouillon, who last scored over a year ago (unless you count his biweekly advances on his own net), snuck down to the Ottawa crease and fired home a rebound, salting away a game that Montreal was owning, then losing, and then owned again.
One can make an argument that the Habs never should have been in such dire straits to begin with, as they carried the play at even strength and had the advantage of a plethora of powerplays. Nevertheless, the Habs made it difficult on themselves, and with their chance to win on life support, stole back an important game.
The Canadiens proved that they're capable of doing the highly improbable. Tonight, they'll have to prove that they're capable of doing the routine.
The Sabres held a firesale at the deadline, unburdening themselves of some of the last vestiges of a previously competitive team and looking toward the future under new GM Tim Murray. Gone is Vezina Trophy winner Ryan Miller, and former 40 goal scorer Thomas Vanek (traded earier in the season, of course). The man they got back for Vanek, Matt Moulson, is also gone. The man they got back for Miller, Jaroslav Halak, was also flipped.
Firmly in rebuild mode, the Sabres are a shell of even the last place team they were earlier this season. Their fenwick close over the last ten games is 37.4%, a bottoming-out of the grandest proportions. Their top line, of Drew Stafford, Tyler Ennis, and Cory Conacher, might legitimately be Montreal's fourth line. Buffalo's best weapons, noted Habs killers Moulson and Vanek, are now wearing different jerseys. When Vanek is looking to score on the Sabres, it's a sure sign that the recent Habs-Sabres paradigm has shifted.
The Canadiens must, and should, win tonight. We know they can step up in the face of adversity. Now, we'll see if they can step up when the pressure is off.