For the second year in a row, the Buffalo Sabres are sizzling in the stretch.
The Sabres pulled even in points with eighth-place Washington in the race for the last playoff spot in the Eastern Conference by blanking the Montreal Canadiens 3-0 at the First Niagara Center on Wednesday night.
Ryan Miller made 34 saves for his career-best sixth shutout and newcomer Cody Hodgson had his first two goals since being acquired from Vancouver at the trade deadline as the Sabres improved to 80 points. Washington also has 80, but has played one fewer game.
"We've put together a good run to be where we're at," coach Lindy Ruff said after his team improved to 11-2-4 since Feb. 17. "There's a tough schedule ahead of us, but it's rewarding to get us as close as we've gotten right now."
As they did last season, the Sabres (35-29-10) have mounted a late-season surge after it appeared they were doomed to miss the playoffs. But despite a 16-5-5 run, Miller knows the Sabres haven't won anything yet.
"I'm not going to say I'm not happy, but it is a stop along the way," Miller said after his 28th career shutout. "I'm trying not to be satisfied. We've got a lot of hockey left to play."
The Sabres will likely have to finish with more points than Washington to finish eighth -- the Caps lead Buffalo 35-27 in non-shootout victories, the first tiebreaker when teams are tied.
The Sabres were in 14th place as recently as Feb. 17, and they haven't had a share of eighth place since Dec. 19. Their late-season push resembles the 16-4-4 stretch run that enable them to clinch a playoff spot on the final weekend last season.
"We knew everybody was counting us out, and we just wanted to go out and prove to ourselves that we knew we had a better team in here," center Derek Roy said. "It shows the character of the boys."
Roy had two assists and Jason Pominville also scored for Buffalo. Miller has keyed the surge, having allowed 29 goals in going 11-1-3 in his past 15 games.
The Canadiens (28-33-13) missed a chance to move out of last place in the East, while losing in regulation for the first time in seven games (3-1-3).
"This is just one game that I thought was overall not too bad," Canadiens coach Randy Cunneyworth said. "It was not all that negative. I thought we did a lot of positive things. But it wasn't sustained enough."
The Canadiens, coming off a three-day break, dominated much of the first period, but came away trailing 1-0 after Hodgson opened the scoring at 6:15 by capping a great individual effort. He raced up the right side, cut between Montreal's Aaron Palushaj and Alexei Emelin and got off a weak shot that Carey Price easily sticked aside. But Hodgson kept going, chased down the puck behind the net and wrapped it in off Price, who failed to hug the left post.
“Sometimes you’ve gotta get lucky,” Hodgson said with a smile. “It’s like I’ve been saying all along, sometimes you need to get a bounce here or there. I thought tonight our whole line played well. There were lots of scoring chances, and we didn’t give too much up. And when we did, Millsy was there to shut the door.”
Ruff said he had a feeling after Monday’s game 7-2 win at Tampa Bay that Hodgson was ready to break out.
“I said after the game in Tampa that getting a couple assists was going to be a boost for him," Ruff said. "You feel good about that and I thought tonight he probably could’ve had four or five points. He made three or four great plays, scored a couple of goals, set Van (Thomas Vanek) up on a couple opportunities. Anytime you can get a little bit of that pressure relieved, you know you talk about some of our guys getting on the board, it helps."
Pominville scored to convert a scramble 2:31 into the second, and Hodgson sealed the win by one-timing in Roy's perfect feed through the slot for a power-play goal with 7:15 left in regulation. Hodgson has two goals and two assists in his last two games after going pointless in his first 10 after coming in a trade with Vancouver.
Cunneyworth pulled Price for an extra attacker with four minutes left. The plan lasted 42 seconds, until Montreal's Erik Cole was penalized for goalie interference.
Miller was the busiest in the first period, when he made 15 saves. That included getting his pad on Tomas Plekanec's shot that sneaked in through a crowd from the right boards five minutes in. A few minutes later, Miller moved to his left to prevent Louis Leblanc's wraparound attempt.
His best save came 8:30 into the second period, when Miller scrambled to his right to stop Cole's shot from the circle.
"I thought there were some good things from the game tonight," Miller said. "When we settled in during the second and third period, I thought it was more our game; the kind of hockey we need to play.”
Material from wire services and team media was used in this report.
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