Canadiens vs. Sabres Ten Takeaways: Goalie battle edition

Both goalies played an excellent game, with Lehner earning the extra point

10. Carey Price made some spectacular saves

Lots has been said and speculated about Price lately. Whether or not he’s healthy, if he’s in a slump or fatigued, no theory has been left untouched. As if to silence his critics, Price played a stellar game on Saturday night, reminding us all of his ability to repel rubber.

Saving the best for last, Price made a series of highlight reel saves in the third period, when he faced 14 shots, and produced this face-melting save for overtime, robbing Rasmus Ristolainen.

9. Robin Lehner was up to the challenge

Lehner made 36 saves in hostile territory to steal a win away from the Habs. It took an extra frame and a near-miraculous save to make it happen, but Lehner did everything possible to keep Buffalo in the game and it paid off. In just his last game Lehner was pulled in the second period, after allowing three goals on 16 shots, but he bounced back with a stellar performance against Montreal. Like Price, Lehner also saved the best for last, stopping all seven shots the Habs took in the third period, as well as the three shots he faced in overtime - including this gem.

8. The Canadiens still lack discipline

There were a few moments of weakness for the Canadiens, and not all of them were caught by the referees. Alexander Radulov and Mark Barberio took inoffensive minor penalties while Alexei Emelin was given a two-minute minor of his own that could have been much worse. Emelin hit Matt Moulson from behind and while Moulson turned his back to the oncoming contact, Emelin had lots of opportunity to let up, and opted to send Moulson face-first into the boards instead.  Alex Galchenyuk got his fist into the face of Cody Franson and got away with it. In short, Montreal remains one of the more penalized teams in the NHL (average of 10:28 PIM per game) and need to focus on taking less penalties if they’re going to get back to winning more often.

7. The Penalty Kill is improving

The good news on the heels of bad discipline is a penalty kill that’s actually been relatively efficient in the last few games. All three penalties taken by Montreal on Saturday were killed by forwards Tomas Plekanec, Torrey Mitchell, Paul Byron and Jacob de la Rose and for the most part on defence by Shea Weber and Nathan Beaulieu.

The Habs’ PK is now 11/11 in the last four games and may have helped make a big difference in acquiring the three points Montreal has added to their division lead during that stretch.

6. Lineup shuffles aren’t going to come easy

Phillip Danault scored his tenth goal of the season on a beauty tip-in, and his linemate Max Pacioretty notched an assist, proving Michel Therrien’s gamble to keep the two together paid off. Meanwhile, Alex Galchenyuk failed to score any points but created some opportunities with his new linemates and generated four shots on net, most among Montreal skaters.

With the offensive skill spread out through the lineup and some defensively responsible players sprinkled onto every unit, you can argue the Habs are icing a well-rounded at the moment. Many fans are calling for Galchenyuk’s return to the top line with Alexander Radulov and Max Pacioretty, and that may be what’s best for the team in the long run, but between Danault’s already career-best season and Therrien’s reputation for lineup decisions, it may be a while before we see that lineup most desire. Then again, we may see it during the next practice. Thus the, uh... beauty of the line blender.

5. Habs fail to outshoot opponent for 11th time in last 14 games

For every finger pointed to Carey Price’s numbers dropping, there should be at least one finger pointed at the Canadiens’ porous defence lately. Montreal sports a 15-6-5 record when failing to shoot more pucks at their opponent than they allow on their own net, but the trend is not good. The Habs have been outshot* (on Saturday they tied Buffalo with 38 shots on net each) in each of their losses dating back to December 23rd against the Columbus Blue Jackets.

4. Artturi Lehkonen has killer instinct

The Finnish rookie has been impressive this year, and has seemingly gotten better as the season wears on. With the game’s opening goal Lehkonen scored his seventh point in the eleven games played in 2017. He’s now tied with Tomas Plekanec for second most goals among Canadiens’ in the last ten games (3), and third for points on the team in that same stretch. Lehkonen has also been accomplishing this with relatively little ice time, averaging under 14 minutes per game this season. Michel Therrien held Lehkonen to 11:56 on Saturday night, despite having scored the team’s first goal.

It’s worth noting that he actually set up the play that he ended up scoring on, starting a breakout from behind Carey Price’s net, and his rush back into the offensive zone and intelligent positioning left him in the right spot to fire a loose puck into the Sabres’ net. Lehkonen has shown a killer instinct when he’s in the right position, which may seem obvious at first, but actually is a rare skill. The combination of being in the right place, high hockey IQ and soft hands give the Finn great finish.

3. Block Party

The Canadiens blocked no less than twenty shots fired at Carey Price on Saturday, meaning the Sabres sent over sixty pucks at the Habs’ net. This is worrisome for two main reasons: it means more work for Carey Price and more time for the skaters in their own zone; it also means more potential for injury. Jeff Petry blocked a shot and skated off but eventually returned.

It’s a positive that players find themselves in the shooting lanes and can offer the help to Price, however it’s not great that they should have to be in those positions to begin with. It’s bad enough players need to stay out of the way in the offensive zone (especially when Shea Weber is on the ice, as we saw during one of the goals against) but they shouldn’t have to be blocking 20 shots a night, like they did against Buffalo.

2. Montreal suffers a rare loss in second game of back-to-back series’

Saturday’s loss against Buffalo was a tough one, but the Canadiens still have twice as many wins than losses (6-2-1 record) on the second of back-to-back games. This is often a great excuse to pin to a loss, especially when travel is necessary, but the Habs have picked up 13 of a possible 18 points in these games this year.

When you consider the positive record when being outshot, this still paints an encouraging picture of what the Habs can do this year when in tough situation and gives added hope to what the team can accomplish when everyone is healthy and back in the lineup. Speaking of which, I wonder what Andrei Markov is up to lately...

1. The Carey Price situation

The Habs have been suffering from many injuries to their skaters, but with Price healthy, the team has a fighting chance in every game. It’s certainly not been perfect. There’s games where the offence shines and the defence is optional at best. There have been intense goalie battles, goalie failures, and there have been boring games. Rarely have all the stars aligned for Montreal but they have enough skill and enough talent spread throughout the lineup that they’ve kept winning.

Last year when the train went off the rails for the Habs, Price wasn’t there to steal games, or overtime loser points - and there’s every reason to think we may have seen a season similar to this one, with the Canadiens not looking perfect very often, but keeping a grip on the Atlantic division lead.

Say what you will aboutPrice,  but he’s been excellent more often than not throughout the season, and he can’t be blamed for all of the losses on his record this year. If we look at the big picture, he’s very likely one of the main reasons the Canadiens are still at the top of the division.

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