MONTREAL - Same score, same teams, different building. Only 24 hours after edging the Sabres 3-2 in Buffalo, Alex Kovalev potted a pair to lead the Canadiens to another 3-2 victory and a sweep of their divisional rivals in the home-and-home series before a full house at the Bell Centre.
Kovalev's first multi-goal regular season game as a Canadien helped Claude Julien's squad move to 11-3-1 on the season and remain atop the Eastern Conference with 23 points. Montreal is off to their best start since they last began 11-3-1 back in 1991-92. The Sabres lost their third straight to fall to 7-7-0.
Tonight's win also gave the Canadiens their third sweep out of 20 all-time home-and-home series with the Sabres. Buffalo has yet to ever turn the trick, while Montreal accomplished the feat on Nov. 1-2, 1991 with 5-1 and 5-0 victories and on Dec. 2-3, 1978 following 8-1 and 4-1 wins.
The Canadiens top line of Kovalev, Saku Koivu and Richard Zednik exploded for a combined six points on the night, with Zednik notching what would prove to be the game-winner early in the third period.
"Scoring a couple feels good, but we can't expect to keep winning this way," said Kovalev, who now has six goals and 15 points on the season. "We have to find a way to win games a little more easily. If we keep cutting it this close, we're just asking for trouble."
It would be an understatement to say that the Canadiens have been living dangerously this season as their league-leading 9-2 mark in one-goal games can attest to.
"This is a big win for us but it shouldn't have come down to the wire like it did tonight," said Koivu, who echoed the sentiments of his Russian linemate, despite picking up two more assists for 17 points in 14 games on the year. "Sure it's exciting to be involved in these types of games, but it's really draining for us to have to battle that hard until the last minute every night. We needed to get that fourth goal tonight once we were up 3-1. We're not putting teams away and it's going to cost us if we keep this up much longer."
One player in the Montreal dressing room who knows a thing or two about delivering a knockout punch to a reeling opponent is former Red Wing Mathieu Dandenault.
"In Detroit, we really got good at not letting teams get back up once we had them down," said Dandenault, who along with partner Francis Bouillon led all Canadiens with a plus-three rating in this home-and-home series. "We can't let teams get back into the game the way we've been doing lately. Tonight's game should not have come down to a huge save from Theo."
After getting a well-deserved breather Friday night, Jose Theodore delivered one of his best performances of this young season, stopping 28-of-30 Sabres shots, including a number of big saves in the dying moments of the game. Martin Biron suffered his second loss in 24 hours to the Canadiens after allowing three goals on 29 shots.
Though they were held off the scoresheet in Buffalo, the Canadiens' power-play sprang to life going 2-for-5 while the Sabres were 1-for-5 with the man advantage.
Buffalo's goals on the night came from rookie Paul Gaustad and Montreal native Jean-Pierre Dumont.
It was also a big night for Andrei Markov, who was honored before the game as the first recipient of the Molson Cup for the 2005-06 season. The Russian rearguard celebrated by picking up a pair of assists for seven points on the year, leading all Canadiens blueliners.
With Steve Begin still getting over the flu, Julien juggled his lines and continued the revolving door of wingers on his second trio as Chris Higgins became already the fourth winger to play alongside Mike Ribeiro and Michael Ryder this season.
"I didn't hear I was playing with them until like an hour and a half before the game, but you won't hear me complaining. I think I played more in the first period tonight than I have in some entire games this year!" said the 22-year old rookie after logging a career-high 16:51 and firing a team-high five shots. "Hopefully a few of those will start going in soon, but my main concern is just to get all the ice-time I can, no matter what line I play on."
Even though the game's second star walked away from the media scrum with an ice-pack on his right foot as proof of his game-high four shots blocked on the night, Higgins couldn't help but smile as he limped his way to the showers.
The Canadiens will welcome the defending Stanley Cup champion Tampa Bay Lightning to the Bell Centre on Tuesday in a rematch of their second round playoff series in 2004.
NOTES: Saturday night's match-up with the Sabres drew a capacity crowd of 21,273, marking the Canadiens' eighth straight sellout of this season and 26th consecutive regular season sellout dating back to 2003-04...The Canadiens are now 8-1 when scoring first... C Radek Bonk missed his fourth straight game with a groin injury. D Mark Streit was a healthy scratch for the fifth consecutive game and ninth time in 14 games so far this season. C Jan Bulis left the game with a left shoulder injury in the opening period after only 2:28 of ice-time... D Craig Rivet dropped the gloves for the first time this season as he took on Adam Mair... The Canadiens were outshot were only the fourth time so far in 2005-06 with the Sabres holding a slim 30-29 edge in shots... D Mike Komisarek had a game-high five hits...
Manny Almela is a writer for canadiens.com