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Canadiens vs. Sabres 5 Takeaways: The familiar Carey Price returns

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The team’s MVP returned to action and rewarded his club with a shutout win against a division rival.

NHL: Buffalo Sabres at Montreal Canadiens Dominick Gravel-USA TODAY Sports

1. Carey Price was probably hurt prior to the Minnesota Wild game

The Canadiens welcomed back their MVP, Carey Price, who returned from a lower-body injury. In the first period, Price was aggressive, acrobatic, and resilient. He exuded confidence with his play, showing that not only was he fit to return to the crease, but he was looks ready to return to his previous form.

Price also survived a run-in which saw Rasmus Ristolainen bump into him, sending the netminder into his own net, his right leg bent awkwardly beneath him. While Habs fans watching everywhere held their collective breath, Price bounced right back up and went back to work, signalling his competitiveness and good health to the rest of the league.

Thanks to a generous reversal of a late-game Sabres goal, Price left the Bell Centre with his 40th career shutout, and the Canadiens’ first win since they played the Buffalo Sabres on November 11.

It’s only one game, so it’s too soon to say that the old Price is here to stay, but the man between the pipes on Saturday night was not the same goalie who started the year for the Habs.

The story has been that Price got hurt in warm-ups before the November 2 game against the Minnesota Wild, though looking at his play tonight, it’s hard to argue the goalie wasn’t dealing with some issue earlier in the year and perhaps only aggravated it in that warm-up. Whether it’s the rest and injury rehabilitation, the return to old equipment, or something else, the new Carey Price was eerily reminiscent of the old Carey Price, and that’s good.

2. A good game for special teams

For the second time in the last three games, Montreal’s power play has found the back of the net. The Habs entered Saturday’s game ranked 28th of the NHL’s 31 teams for power-play efficiency, so even a mild uptick in scoring is a silver lining.

Montreal only had two opportunities to play with a man advantage, and Jeff Petry scored on the first one only 14 seconds in. The biggest challenge the Canadiens have faced on the power play has been getting into offensive territory, but once they get set up they have all the tools to be a threat. If the Habs continue to draw penalties and take advantage of opportunities, it can help make the difference between making the playoffs and being on the outside looking in.

Constant penalty killing threat Paul Byron made good on his reputation for speed, breaking up a play at his own blue line and turning on the jets for a breakaway which he capped off by sliding a backhand through Robin Lehner’s five-hole. The shortie was the fifth of Byron’s career, against the team that drafted him.

3. The defence is not good enough yet

While some things went well for Montreal on Saturday, it was woefully obvious that the team’s defence is still not competitive enough to make the team a contender. The Sabres are one of only four teams lower than the Habs in the league’s standings, and Buffalo still dominated long stretches of puck possession. The Canadiens’ defence was decent at preventing many high-danger shots but were also sometimes unable to move the puck out of their own zone.

After 24 games in a Habs uniform, Karl Alzner is not living up to his $6 million salary. The free agent acquisition had a meek 31% Corsi-for percentage on Saturday. Only Jordie Benn and Joe Morrow had even or positive possession stats.

Morrow was the second-most utilized defender, playing more than 23 minutes. No offence to Joe Morrow, but he didn’t even start the year on an NHL team, and is now one of the staples of a defensive squad of a very average team.

4. Paul Byron looks good on the top line

Not only did Byron score a short-handed goal on Saturday, but the winger was moved to join a line with Jonathan Drouin and Alex Galchenyuk, while Max Pacioretty rejoined familiar faces from last year in Phillip Danault and Andrew Shaw.

It was a small sample size, but it appeared after one game that Byron may share a more natural chemistry with Drouin than the team’s captain. On several occasions, the two were finding each other and skating well in support of one another in offensive and neutral territories.

Both lines held their own in terms of shot attempts and shot suppression, and one has to hope the coach does not make any changes prior to Monday night’s game against the Columbus Blue Jackets.

5. A win met with mixed feelings

It felt good to see Carey Price back between the pipes, and looking like his old MVP self. Likewise, it was nice to see Paul Byron back on the short-handed breakaway scoring hype train. There were positive signs from the top two lines.

Saturday night’s game, however, was not a joy ride. The Canadiens were on their heels for stretches of the game, and simply made the most of their occasions. They were, at times, being dominated by one of the least threatening teams in the league. Buffalo has a lot of scoring prowess on the ice, but hasn’t been able to put it all into a comprehensive package.

With that said, it’s hard to really celebrate the first Habs win in two weeks, considering their two most recent wins came in a stretch of eight games, and both were against the Sabres. There’s also the consideration that one win in six games is not the type of threat made by a team seriously on its way back up the standings.

There were solid moments and two points to this game, but optimism will stay in the back seat until the Habs can piece together a few more wins.