By opening their season with seven consecutive wins, the Montreal Canadiens have demonstrated that on any given night, they can beat any team in the league. Tonight, we'll find out if they can beat a team they're supposed to beat on most nights.
Last year, that didn't happen, as the Canadiens fell to the Sabres in three out of four games. The Sabres' win output against the Habs accounted for 13% of their win total for the season, and Montreal's futility against one of the most futile outfits in league history ultimately cost them the points that would have clinched the Presidents' Trophy.
As we've all observed, this year's team is different. This is the team that operates with a stubborn efficiency, never relenting until the final buzzer has sounded. With maximum talent and maximum effort, the Canadiens feel like a threat to score on every shift, and if they aren't pressuring their opponent, Carey Price is daring those opponents to try to capitalize.
There is no obvious weak spot built into this Montreal lineup. As the Habs are about to find out, however, this is not last year's Sabres team, either.
How to Watch
Start time: 7:00 PM ET
In the Canadiens region (French): RDS
In the Canadiens region (English): CITYM
In the Sabres region: MSG-B
Elsewhere: NHL GameCenter, NHL Center Ice
Tale of the Tape
|56.1||Score-Adjusted Corsi %||49.4|
|3.5||5v5 Goal Ratio||0.55|
Know Your Enemy
The Sabres record may not look promising, but this year's group is already showing signs of life that were never present last season.
With surprising depth through the top-nine, the Sabres can ice three talented lines, anchored by the talented centre trio of Ryan O'Reilly, Jack Eichel, and Zemgus Girgensons.
In fact, O'Reilly and Tyler Ennis in particular have been quite effective at pushing the play with a bit of favourable zone deployment, and have been on the ice for 42 and 45 scoring chances for, respectively. To this point, neither has had those scoring chances culminate in a goal at even strength, understating the production of a team that is not quite managing two goals per game overall. With a team shooting percentage of 3.7%, exactly half of Montreal's 7.4% rate, the Sabres are due to start scoring.
But while the Buffalo offence attempts some imitation of Montreal's balanced attack, their defensive play leaves something to be desired. One of the more glaring issues is another facsimile of a Therrien strategy, but in Buffalo's case, the results have not been so positive.
The Habs have been able to ice Torrey Mitchell, Brian Flynn, and Devante Smith-Pelly in the defensive zone with impunity, as the trio has yet to give up a goal against at even strength. The Sabres have attempted something similar, and while the members of the fourth line have varied, the strategy and result have not. Johan Larsson, David Legwand, and Nicolas Deslauriers have started in their own zone more than any other Sabres, and the outcome hasn't been pretty. Despite playing fewer than 10 minutes per game, on average, those three players have already combined for 13 goals against at even strength this year. If the Canadiens can get their hot third line out against that group, there should be lots of opportunity to get to Chad Johnson.
Last Time Out
The Canadiens last meeting with the Sabres came on the heels of a disappointing loss to the Arizona Coyotes, and at the tail end of a stretch of particularly underwhelming play. The game, billed as Montreal's must-have opportunity for repentance for their hockey sins, ended just as disappointingly and underwhelmingly as the games that preceded it.
The Habs sloppy play, not dissimilar to that of a "posse of drunken circus clowns", had them down 3-1 before they decided to start playing, and sadly, the Canadiens did not leave themselves enough time to overcome that disadvantage.
While Montreal would finally turn things around the following game against New Jersey, it was too late to prevent this game from going down as a prime candidate for the climax of the 2014-15 Canadiens blooper reel.
When the Habs began their week by shutting out the St. Louis Blues, an elite team even while short-staffed, the sense of optimism surrounding Montreal's miraculous start to the season grew even greater. If the Habs can manage to beat a team they have no business losing to, the foundation of this special season will grow even sturdier.