The Montreal Canadiens needed to walk out of the Bell Centre with a win last night, but it was the Buffalo Sabres who seemed to be more eager to find the game’s first goal, able to get some pressure around Carey Price on a few shifts early.
Despite the Habs getting up to speed in short order and starting to control the play, the Sabres did indeed find the first goal. With the shots 9-4 in Montreal’s favour, a transition back to the Habs’ zone ended with Sam Reinhart depositing the puck behind Price and quieting a home crowd nervous about its team’s playoff chances.
A power play that couldn’t get beyond the Sabres’ blue line didn’t do much to improve the mood, and as the first period came a close, a handful of boos were heard.
There wasn’t much to be upset about when the Canadiens took to the ice after their 17-minute break. The Sabres were left chasing whichever line came over the boards, and it wasn’t long until the game was tied.
Picking up the puck off a turnover, Max Domi turned toward the net, and spun to zip a backhand pass to Andrew Shaw on his right wing. Shaw relayed the puck immediately to a net-charging Artturi Lehkonen, who put it and himself into the cage.
With the effort resulting in a quick goal, Montreal figured they may as well keep it up. Brendan Gallagher and his line nearly got a goal seconds later, but instead the alternate captain had to settle for establishing a new career high on his next shift.
This time a diving effort set up the goal, as Phillip Danault swept the puck from behind the goal line to the slot, where Gallagher had plenty of time and space to score his 32nd of the season.
Five minutes later, Andrew Shaw had the home fans feeling good again after receiving a pass in the slot and sniping a shot beyond the reach Carter Hutton for the 3-1 goal.
But the mood was soured once more when the Sabres responded on a power play just 30 seconds later to reduce the hard-earned lead back to just a single goal. Jagged fingernails began to form when the lead disappeared entirely as Marco Scandella scored with just under four minutes to play in the period.
The Habs weren’t interested in heading to another intermission without a lead, and a two-on-one a bit later in the frame helped them find it. Jordan Weal took his time to create a passing lane, hitting the skate of Paul Byron, who used it to redirect the puck in.
Montreal was able to keep its level of play up in the third. It took over eight minutes, but they finally earned a bit more breathing room. Skating the puck down the wall, Shea Weber was a long way from home when he sent a no-look pass from behind the net to the slot. Gallagher was right there to quickly convert for a 5-3 edge.
Praised for his maturity in recent days, Shaw let a fit of madness get the better of him on the next shift, charging Evan Rodrigues at the Canadiens’ bench after a collision in the Sabres’ end, and then getting a double sentence when he went after Jeff Skinner following the hit.
The Canadiens did well to kill off the entirety of the four minutes Shaw spent in the penalty box, but before he could establish himself back in the play, Jack Eichel outbattled Joel Armia for a puck in the slot and fired it behind Price to make it an uncomfortable one-goal lead once again.
A few moments later, the Canadiens were handed a chance for another goal when Zemgus Girgensons was placed in the box. In a surprising twist, Montreal actually took advantage of the reduction in the opposition’s strength to add to their offence.
Given some space to advance deeper in the zone, Domi dragged the puck behind him, launching it behind Hutton for his 26th goal of the season.
Down by two the Sabres replaced Hutton with a forward, seeking a goal to get them back in it. But it was Tomas Tatar who put one final puck in the vacated net to seal the 7-4 win.
On Domi’s goal, he also registered his 67th point of the campaign, matching the highest output Max Pacioretty was able to achieve in his tenure in Montreal. That’s great news for a player who just turned 24 in his first season with the Canadiens, and hopefully something he can replicate on a consistent basis as the former captain was able to do.
Even better news for the team, it was a second straight game with a power-play goal. That type of production from their man advantage units would be massive in the final seven games of the season.
The first of those will be played later today in Raleigh when Montreal visits the Hurricanes. Looking like they were out of the playoff race altogether at this point last week, the Canadiens now have an eye on the first wild-card spot that their next opponent is currently latched on to. The result of tonight’s four-point contest will determine if that’s a realistic goal over the final two weeks, or if their season will come down the battle with the Columbus Blue Jackets for the final slot.