MONTREAL – Ryan Miller was the lone reason the Buffalo Sabres got out of Montreal on Tuesday night with two points, and his teammates know it.
Miller almost singlehandedly kept the Sabres in the game with 39 saves, including 29 through two periods, making goals by Jordan Leopold and Thomas Vanek stand up in a 3-1 win against the Canadiens.
"Ryan basically stole us this one," Sabres captain Jason Pominville said. "He played great. He's been playing great for a while now and you get to know what to expect out of him. He comes in to battle, he
never gives up on any shot. He made a couple of big saves to keep us in there."
The Canadiens (1-3-1) dominated the play nearly from start to finish, with the lone exception of the second half of the second period, but still couldn't avoid their worst start to a season since 1999 with one win in their opening five games.
"To me, we played the game the way we needed to play," Canadiens coach Jacques Martin said. "We put pucks behind their (defense), we forechecked, we created chances. But sometimes you don't control the result."
The Sabres (4-1-0), meanwhile, came away with a victory they may not have fully deserved were it not for Miller, registering a season-low 23 shots on goal but managing to beat Carey Price twice.
Christian Ehrhoff scored his first goal in a Sabres uniform with 28.3 seconds to play, scoring into an empty net from just behind his own goal line to ice it for Buffalo.
Miller, however, tried to downplay the disparity between the two teams.
"They were just so motivated," Miller said. "They came out and every line was working hard for them and I think we got caught watching them a bit. It took us a while to get going, but I think the last half of
the game was a lot better."
Vanek continued his torrid start with his fourth goal to extend his season-long point streak to five games.
The big positive for the Canadiens was that surprising rookie Raphael Diaz scored his first NHL goal, and it was a beauty. He jumped in on the rush, took a pass from Max Pacioretty and out-waited Miller to
score from a sharp angle into a largely empty net.
It was quite a moment for the 25-year-old Swiss defenseman, who was a long shot to make the team out of training camp but has proven to be a vital cog in an injury-riddled Canadiens defense corps.
Still, Diaz was disconsolate following the game.
"We lost the game, I think it's more important that we win as a team," he said. "For sure that moment was nice, but it's better that we win the game and I get my goal in some other game."
The Canadiens entered the night as the more desperate team and it showed early on, dominating the Sabres by a 14-3 margin on the shot counter but registering nothing on the scoreboard through the opening 20 minutes.
"If you've been around the game long enough you can just kind of sense it that we needed to get one here or else they were going to steal it," Canadiens center Scott Gomez said.
The line of David Desharnais centering Pacioretty and Andrei Kostitsyn was particularly effective, generating about five or six quality scoring chances through the opening frame but failing to solve Miller. Pacioretty finished the night with nine shots on goal.
"We were buzzing, but we have to finish a little better as well," Desharnais said. "Still, we're working hard and we need to keep doing that."
The storyline continued into the second, with the Canadiens controlling every aspect of the play but again coming out of the period tied.
Montreal finally got on the board at 2:08 of the second when Kostitsyn and Pacioretty set up Diaz. His defense partner Hal Gill dutifully collected the puck from the scorers' table and delivered it to Diaz,
who was beaming from ear to ear on the bench.
Tomas Plekanec had a glorious chance to increase Montreal’s lead to 2-0, but he fanned on his shot with a wide open net and slid the puck into a diving Miller's stomach instead at the 7:06 mark.
The Sabres took advantage and tied it at 12:21 when Drew Stafford's long backhand from a sharp angle was re-directed by Price into the slot, where Leopold easily buried it for his first of the season. The
shots on goal at the time were 25-10 Montreal.
The second period finished with the Canadiens enjoying a 30-15 lead in shots, but trailing 2-1 when a late-period icing by Josh Gorges turned into a Vanek goal with under three seconds to play, a perfect shot to the far top corner off a faceoff victory by Paul Gaustad.
"Paul Gaustad's been one of our best faceoff guys for a few years now," Pominville said. "They iced the puck and we were able to go out there and get a look that we were able to talk about before and we
were able to execute it. It was a great shot by (Vanek) too."
Gorges was upset with himself for the mistake of clearing the zone too hard, as he was hoping to dump the puck out to the neutral zone to kill the clock. But ultimately, the play wound up killing his team.
"We need to learn that one shift," he said, "can determine the outcome of the game."
That, and a dominant goaltending performance at the other end.