The Montreal Canadiens had an odd start to their game against the Buffalo Sabres on Thursday night. The first period began with plenty of physicality, as Brendan Gallagher and Ilya Kovalchuk landed big hits, but the team looked nearly lifeless for the rest of the opening frame, giving up a power-play goal over seven minutes in before they had even attempted one shot at Buffalo’s end.
While some of the fanbase may be hoping for losses to get a better spot in the draft lottery, a coach and his players are never proponents of such a strategy, only interested in winning every game they play. To start what was just their second game in 12 days, that interest level seemed in doubt. If they couldn’t get engaged to play the team just above them in the standings, how did they expect to leapfrog four clubs over the remainder of the season to seize a playoff spot?
Perhaps that was the message on the bench after their own power play late in the period failed to generate even a single shot. With 30 seconds to play, and the scoreboard showing just six shots for the visiting team — four from the newly constructed line of Kovalchuk, Nick Suzuki, Joel Armia — the top line went to work to close out the period. They didn’t score a goal, but it seemed like the team had finally decided to put in a bit of effort.
The momentum carried over to the second, and Suzuki’s line tied the game 44 seconds in. The rookie centreman’s faceoff win allowed his wingers to go work, with Joel Armia getting the puck behind the net and Ilya Kovalchuk finding some space to get open for his new linemate. While his first shot didn’t make it to the net, he stuck around to collect his rebound off Suzuki’s foot, and sent a follow-up attempt past Carter Hutton to tie the game.
A little more than two minutes later, it was time for the top line to make their mark on the scoreboard. After gaining the zone, Phillip Danault tried to connect with Tomas Tatar going to the net, but had the pass knocked to the wall. As he went to retrieve it, Tatar first looked over his shoulder to see where his teammates were, seeing Gallgher taking his usual route to the net. He spun and fired a pass across the ice, where Gallagher got it in enough space to deke Hutton a few times before scoring on his backhand.
As they have been doing often this season, the team believed that one-goal lead was enough to hang on to until the final horn sounded. After a few more shifts of controlling play, they settled into more of a defending formation.
That hasn’t worked well this season because Carey Price and the scrambly defence in front of him were rarely able to lock down the net-front area. The goaltender has been a different player in January, however, and kept the Sabres from adding to their goal total the rest of the night.
He even tried to score one himself. Perhaps inspired by Pekka Rinne’s goal on January 9, Price tried to hit the emty net 178 feet away, but had his shot intercepted by the last Sabre back. The team found the insurance goal all the same, as Suzuki, out on the ice with two minutes remaining in a one-goal game, passed it off to Tatar inside the Sabres’ zone, and Tatar put the puck in before a frustrated Jack Eichel came flying in to knock the net off its pegs.
The captain of the team that was booed off the ice at the end of the second period may not have been happy with the result, but the Canadiens’ players certainly were after overcoming a terrible start with a quick burst of offence.
Up next for Montreal are their annual back-to-back matinées this weekend ahead of the Super Bowl. Those games are against the Florida Panthers and Columbus Blue Jackets — two of the teams sitting in playoff spots the organization still has its eye upon — with victories perhaps even more critical than the one they claimed last night ot move one position closer.