MONTREAL - No strangers to nail-biting, comeback efforts this season, the Canadiens battled into overtime before being edged out 3-2 by the Sabres Tuesday night at the Bell Centre.
Coming off back-to-back home-ice wins over the weekend, the Canadiens (25-22-7) managed to force overtime thanks to an Alex Kovalev breakaway goal four minutes to play in regulation. Montreal did pick up a crucial point in the standings to maintain sole possession of ninth spot in the Eastern Conference, only two points back of the Maple Leafs, with the Canadiens still holding a game in hand over Toronto.
"Every point at this stage is crucial," admitted Canadiens coach Bob Gainey. "Trailing 2-1 after two periods, our patience and determination allowed us to tie the game and force overtime. Coming away with the full two points would have been great, but under the circumstances we picked up a big point here tonight."
Maxim Afinogenov's second goal of the night only 30 seconds into overtime during a 5-on-3 advantage allowed the Sabres (35-15-3) to escape from Montreal with their league-leading 18th road victory of 2005-06. Buffalo has now won six straight games to pull within four points of Northeast Division-leading Ottawa. By clawing back in the third period to force the extra frame, the Canadiens became only the third team this season to collect a point against the Sabres after Buffalo has led after two periods. Buffalo headed into the second intermission with a one-goal lead, thanks to Derek Roy, who tallied with just six seconds remaining.
Cristobal Huet, who hadn't surrendered a goal since the second period of Montreal's 3-1 loss to the Bruins last Thursday, saw his incredible shutout streak snapped after 88 consecutive saves when Afinogenov scored on the power-play at the 5:43 mark of the second period. The Grenoble, France native's string of 173:17 marks the longest such streak by a Canadiens goalie in exactly 16 years to the day. Huet shattered Patrick Roy's benchmark of 168:47 set between Feb. 1-7, 1990.
"We did a lot of good things tonight," noted Huet. "We battled back against a good team with good skaters. We stayed in the game until the end and I think we deserved more than we got."
Huet ended his night with 31 saves, including a spectacular stop on Chris Drury before Afinogenov closed the book on the night.
Kovalev's 12th goal of the season extended his point streak to three games (1-3-4), Chris Higgins also got on the scoresheet for Montreal. With Mike Komisarek looking on from the penalty box, Higgins beat Ryan Miller on a 2-on-1 break thanks to a nice feed from Tomas Plekanec, for the 22-year-old's seventh goal of the season. The Canadiens now have seven shorthanded goals this season, including a pair from Higgins, tying him with Steve Begin for the team lead.
"When you score shorthanded, you're always hoping that will give a boost of energy to the rest of the team, especially since you're not expected to score that in that situation," said Higgins. "I got a great pass from Plekanec and I was hoping that it would give the team a jump."
Higgins has been playing a bigger role in tight situations of late. In the past, the Canadiens were used to such efforts from another No. 21.
"[Guy Carbonneau] has helped me a lot," acknowledged Higgins. "He always has these little tricks to share with me. He was one of the best in that aspect of the game, so it's easy for me to follow his advice."
The Canadiens now head to Buffalo for a rematch with the Sabres on Thursday. They'll return to Montreal to host the Thrashers Saturday night, in their final game before the Olympic break.
NOTES : After consecutive weekend wins, Gainey stayed with the identical lineup that took on the Flyers on Super Bowl Sunday, with Niklas Sundstrom, Mark Streit and Jean-Philippe Cote looking on from the pressbox... Tuesday night's game against the Sabres drew a capacity crowd of 21,273, marking the Canadiens' 26th consecutive sellout of the season and 49th straight overall packed house dating back to 2003-04... Montreal is now 9-7-4 all-time in the front end of home-and-home series' against the Sabres...
Manny Almela is a writer for canadiens.com.