The two teams that have given the Montreal Canadiens the most trouble thus far during their successful season would be the Buffalo Sabres and the Toronto Maple Leafs. It just so happens that the pair of division rivals will be their next two opponents as the Habs travel to Buffalo tonight followed by a Saturday night meeting with the Leafs.
These two games come on the heels of a 3-2 loss to the Washington Capitals that could hardly be described as one of the Habs best efforts this season. Carey Price would hold them in the game throughout the first period, especially early when Montreal found themselves behind 9-1 on the shot clock. However, a good defensive play by Lars Eller in his own zone would lead to a quick rush by Alex Galchenyuk and Brandon Prust that would ultimately be finished off by Eller giving the Habs an undeserved 1-0 lead after the first.
The Canadiens would seize momentum and control the play through much of the second period but a knuckleball snapshot from Ovechkin and a point shot by Jack Hillen that bounced off the blocker of Price and the shaft of Andrei Markov’s stick before landing in the net, would give the Capitals a 2-1 lead entering the third period.
Once again in the third Montreal would have the better chances but a long slapper by Hillen would find its way through traffic in front and put the Capitals ahead for good. The Canadiens would not surrender easily as Montreal would have several chances to get back in the game, including some excellent opportunities from the struggling Max Pacioretty. A point shot by youngster Nathan Beaulieu would be tipped in front by Eller and pull the Habs within one with just over three minutes remaining. The Habs continued to pour on the pressure until the final buzzer when a nifty around the net feed from David Desharnais led to an in tight chance for Tomas Plekanec to tie things up. As the horn sounded several Habs were storming the crease but Caps goaltender Micheal Neuvirth was able to withstand the pressure to hold on for the win.
It was a determined effort from the Canadiens, an effort that was rarely seen in last year’s version of the Montreal Canadiens. Though many faces remain the same from a year ago, the picture looks entirely different on the ice. Down 3-1 with only four minutes remaining in 2012 would have meant the game was finished, down 9-1 in shots halfway through the first period would have meant defeat was inevitable.
This year however, things have changed. Montreal struggled out of the gate but would end up heading to the dressing room after 20 minutes with a lead. When they were behind by two with only four minutes remaining they kept fighting until they made the deficit only one and then continued to push until the buzzer went and all six skaters are crashing the crease, searching for a puck that perhaps may be in the back of the net. Even though the comeback fell short, it is nice for Habs fans to be able to believe a comeback is possible.
With that defeat behind them the Canadiens turn to backup Peter Budaj, fresh off signing a contract extension, to face the Sabres. Budaj will serve as Price’s relief for the next two seasons and earn 2.8 million dollars in total to do so. Budaj was able to fill in adequately last season on a team that hardly gave him a chance to win when he was in the blue paint. This season however, like the Canadiens as a whole, things have worked out tremendously for Budaj. He has started eight games, winning six of them and posting the most impressive stats of his career.
Budaj has established himself as the perfect backup for Price. Throughout his career he has not been able to post great numbers when asked to carry the load for a team but has always been great as a second option. He has accepted this role with the Habs, knowing Price will play most of the games over the next two seasons, but Montreal will be able to rest Price throughout those two years knowing that Budaj is capable of winning games as well.
Budaj will face the Sabres for the second time this season after falling 5-4 in a shootout back on February 7th. He faced fourty shots in that contest and if not for a controversial Thomas Vanek goal with seconds remaining would have come away with the victory. Budaj was clearly pushed into the net just prior to Vanek tying the game but the goal would stand.
Montreal has only come away with one victory in four tries versus the Sabres this season, winning a blowout 6-1 during the first meeting between the teams on February 2nd. The Canadiens have been able to take Buffalo to overtime on a pair of occasions so thanks to the loser point in the NHL, the Habs have a 1-1-2 record which is good for four points in four games with the division rival. Montreal has similarly struggled against the Maple Leafs who will be their opponent Saturday night. With just a 1-2-0 record when facing the Leafs, The Habs will be in tough to keep pace with the Boston Bruins at the top of the Northeast Division this week.
Entering tonight’s game with the Sabres, Montreal is one point back of the Bruins for the division lead. If the Canadiens can finish the season ahead of the Bruins and win the division, their first round matchup will be much more favorable. In order to keep pace with the Bruins, Montreal must exorcise their demons against their other division rivals this week, and will officially clinch a playoff spot along the way.