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Canadiens vs. Sabres game recap: Steady Price guides Montreal to a win

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A long awaited return was a shot in the arm for an ailing Montreal side.

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

Coming into Saturday night, the Bell Centre was abuzz with hype for the first time in several weeks. That buzz was due to the franchise star Carey Price finally suiting back up after missing 10 games with an undisclosed lower-body injury. While Charlie Lindgren, Al Montoya and Antti Niemi all did their best between the pipes, specifically the rookie Lindgren, it’s hard to hold a candle to Price when he is locked in, and, unfortunately for the Sabres, that’s exactly what he was last night.

Image credit: HockeyStats.ca

It wouldn’t take long before the Canadiens netminder was tested. In fact he had to come up big very early on against Evander Kane to keep the game scoreless. With the Sabres leading goal-scorer receiving a pass right around the faceoff dot, Price calmly slid himself into position to stop the puck, then coolly swatted the loose puck out of the air, and out of danger.

Then rookie defenceman Victor Mete saved his proverbial bacon shortly thereafter, with a defensive play that he’s been making with surprising regularity this season. Two Sabres broke in, and Price, expecting the pass to come across, cheated to cut the shooting angle down, leaving an open cage if the Buffalo player chose to let a shot go. Mete read this and laid down to not only take the shot away, but also cut out the passing lane and forced the play back outside.

Things weren’t all rosy in the Canadiens’ net in the opening 20 minutes, even if there were no goals scored, fans were forced to hold their breath, at least for a minute. A loose puck around the net drew in Rasmus Ristolainen who ran hard into Price forcing the goaltender backwards into his net awkwardly. Normally this would be just a minor annoyance, but considering it was a game where Price was returning from a moderate injury, it caused a considerable bit of anxiety amongst the fans.

The Canadiens however, didn’t retaliate with punches or lining Ristolainen up for a big hit. Instead they put their foot down, skated hard and made life miserable for the Sabres. The combination of Alex Galchenyuk and Jonathan Drouin in particular ran amok through the neutral zone all night, taking the space they were given and feeding passes to streaking players in the offensive zone.

Galchenyuk got in one-on-one with Ristolainen around the midway point of the period, and despite a sharp-angle shot, chose to try to feed a pass across to Drouin, but the play was easily broken up. There’s been a lot made of Galchenyuk’s struggles, and despite the low percentage scoring chance, he’d be better served letting a shot fly as opposed to an extremely difficult pass through two defenders.

Montreal got a chance to further cement their solid opening period after Jason Pominville got busted for hooking Charles Hudon in the offensive zone. The team was once again without the services of Shea Weber, who is out with a minor injury. So taking his place on the top power-play unit was Jeff Petry, who immediately scored on a great shot from the point.

Galchenyuk did a great job working the puck along the boards before he handed it off to Drouin at the point, and then Petry did the rest taking a great pass and firing it on net. It was a solid shot in its own right, but Ristolainen provided the final helping hand, tipping the puck past Robin Lehner and into the upper half of the net for a power-play goal.

The other downside to Shea Weber being out injured is that the penalty kill is also missing their rock on the blue line. So much like the power play tonight, the penalty killing units stepped up big time, including a flawless kill during a Tomas Plekanec delay of game minor.

The second period was not as kind to the Canadiens as the first one was, as Buffalo owned a large stretch of play and seemed on the verge of scoring a goal at any moment. Yet that goal would not come, as Price looked like the Vezina-winner from a few years ago in net. The hesitancy was all but gone, the rebounds were minimal, and every save seemed almost boring to the Canadiens star goalie as he turned away 15 second-period shots.

Then like so many other teams have been able to this year, the Canadiens found one little opening, and turned the tables on the Sabres in the blink of an eye.

Mete started the breakout from deep in the Montreal zone, and he picked out Drouin near centre ice. From there Drouin passed off immediately to a streaking Paul Byron who fired a shot off Lehner’s pads. This time Galchenyuk was Johnny-on-the-spot and slammed his fifth goal of the year, and gave the Canadiens some serious breathing room headed into the intermission.

If the first period was a solid start, and the second period was a counter punch, then in boxing terms the third was a flash knockout; a punch the other guy never saw coming and it put them out for good. The person delivering that punch was none other than Byron, who capped off an extremely solid game after being promoted to play with Galchenyuk and Drouin.

Andrew Shaw got called for slashing the stick out of Ryan O’Reilly’s hands with about eight minutes gone in the period, giving the Sabres a perfect chance to put a poor Canadiens penalty kill to the test, and see if this team that has a habit of giving up multiple goals in rapid succession could hold the fort.

And hold they did.

Jack Eichel carried the puck in through the neutral zone, and attempted to make a nonchalant backhand pass to Sam Reinhart at the blue line. Byron had other plans, as he poked the errant pass away and sped off into the Sabres end. In all alone on Lehner, Byron cut across the net and slid a shot five-hole on the Sabres goalie for the short-handed tally, and put the final nail in the coffin.

The Sabres pushed back following that as the Canadiens resorted to a defensive style to see out the victory, and with Price back on form there were no nervous moments. A late Buffalo goal was wiped out by league-mandated review for goaltender interference, preserving Price’s 40th career shutout and the win in return from injury.

Thoughts

Buffalo currently is not a very good team, but they have dangerous weapons and can score in bunches, making last night’s meeting a prototypical trap game. Montreal has often had the issue of playing down to their level, and often losing due to a defensive lapse, or just bad luck.

Last night was the opposite, the team put in a solid effort, took their chances, and shut out a usually troublesome team. It’s a start, and there’s plenty of work to still be done, but if Carey Price is back on form and the lines click like they did last night, the Canadiens will be just fine going forward.