MONTREAL – The Habs beat the Sabres thanks to two goals from snipers and a shutout from Carey Price, but it was the team’s foot soldiers who paved the way.
With only 10 forwards at his disposal for most of Monday night’s tilt against the Boston Bruins, head coach Michel Therrien pushed his charges to the limit of their energy levels. In the absence of Dale Weise and Travis Moen, both injured in the first period of the chippy encounter at the TD Garden, captain Brian Gionta logged over 26 minutes of ice time while two-way pivot Tomas Plekanec spent 23:42 on the playing surface. The following night, neither man had to play more than 20 minutes thanks to the strong work of a new-look fourth line composed of Ryan White, Lars Eller and Michael Bournival.
“Things can change really quickly, and it’s so important to have depth,” reflected Therrien after the game. A physical and defensively responsible checking line formed by Moen, Weise and Brandon Prust had anchored the Habs during a recent hot streak, but all three players are now on the sidelines with injuries suffered in the past week. Thankfully, their replacements were up to the task.
“Eller, Bournival and White had a strong game tonight. They spent a lot of time in the offensive zone, which is what we asked of them,” offered Therrien.
The trio combined for four shots on net and used their strength to good effects along the boards. Instead of trying to contain the Sabres’ skill forwards in their own zone, they were two hundred feet away, ragging the puck deep in the Buffalo end. In the first period, the trio played an important role in keeping the visiting team at bay while their teammates tried to find their rhythm after a taxing win 24 hours prior.
After being outshot by Ted Nolan’s troops 11-10 in the first period, the Canadiens found their legs and dominated the Sabres territorially there on in. Leading on the shot counter 22-16 at the start of the third, the game was shaping up to be a fight to the finish, with both Carey Price and Matt Hackett, nephew of former Hab Jeff, playing at the top of their games.
“Matt Hackett is a good young goalie. He made some really big saves and gave his team a chance to stay in the game,” acknowledged Therrien, who saw his team draw its share of penalties but come up empty on its first five poweplay opportunities. The momentum momentarily swung in the Sabres’ favour, with Cody Hodgson threatening to break the game open with a shorthanded attempt on Price. Fortunately, the reigning Olympic gold medalist squared up to the incoming Hodgson and snuffed out the rare Buffalo scoring opportunity.
“I liked how resilient we were tonight. We didn’t change the way we played even as the score remained 0-0, and we got rewarded,” said Therrien. “The first period was a bit difficult with the very emotional game we played last night, but I thought we were very disciplined with the puck in the second and third, and made the right decisions."
Midway through the third period, the high-powered offensive line of David Desharnais, Thomas Vanek and Max Pacioretty finally broke the tie. Desharnais corralled the puck in his zone and fed Vanek as the trio flew over the opposing blue line. Spotting Pacioretty streaking in on goal to Hackett’s left, Vanek feathered a cross-crease pass which the American tipped just past the line with 9:07 left in regulation for his 100th career regulation goal.
Despite owning their first lead of the game, the Habs kept attacking. With Cory Conacher in the sin bin for high-sticking with five minutes left in the game, Daniel Briere found a loose puck in the low slot and snapped a shot top-corner past a partially screened Hackett. It was the Gatineau native’s 299th career tally.
“What I liked was that we played better and better after the first period. The second period was much better and we really took hold in the third,” offered Briere, who had two shots on net and went 9-for-11 in the faceoff circle playing with Brian Gionta and Rene Bourque on Tuesday.
Briere’s goal capped off the scoring for the night. Despite a late push from the Sabres, the home team held the fort and helped Price earn his fifth shutout of the season in his 30th win of 2013-14. With the playoffs looming, it’s all system go for the Montrealers.
“The good thing is that we are in control of our own destiny. We’ve really stepped on the pedal in the last couple of weeks,” added Briere.
Jack Han is a writer for canadiens.com.
Words from the room
The Numbers Game - March 25, 2014