BUFFALO - The Canadiens couldn't close out their three-game road trip in style on Wednesday night.
After posting big victories in Tampa and Sunrise, Claude Julien's troops came up just short in Western New York, falling 2-1 to the Buffalo Sabres at the KeyBank Center. The loss also snapped a five-game winning streak.
Down two goals to start the third period, veteran centerman Tomas Plekanec cut the Sabres' lead in half with his 10th goal of the season just 46 seconds into the frame. Unfortunately, that's the only puck the Canadiens managed to put by netminder Robin Lehner in their first defeat since March 25.
"I thought we missed opportunities to shoot the puck a bit more and be more dangerous offensively," said Plekanec, who reached the double-digit mark in goals for the 11th straight season on Wednesday night. "At the same time, I thought we had a bit of trouble with making that first pass and coming strong out of our zone."
Those were two aspects of the Canadiens' game, in particular, that Julien touched upon in his postgame press conference, noting that both areas needed improvement.
"On the whole, the passes were a bit off, especially the first passes. We still generated scoring chances, but we didn't manage to capitalize on them," explained Julien, whose squad outshot the Sabres by a 32-30 margin in their third-to-last tilt of the regular season. "We often had chances to shoot and we were trying to force things on plays. We were a bit too cute. We didn't shoot enough when it was time to shoot the puck."
Was it simply a letdown of sorts after wrapping up the Atlantic Division crown on Monday night in South Florida? Absolutely not, according to Brendan Gallagher, who is adamant that while games like these might no longer have an effect on the standings, playing well and doing the little things right going into the playoffs really is of primordial importance.
"We're all professionals in here. I've been saying it all along. It doesn't matter where the game is or who you're playing, you want to compete and you want to win. I think everyone in here is the same way. It's a sign of character that you can show up," said Gallagher. "It's not that we didn't show up. They just had a few too many chances, but we had a chance at the end."
They certainly did, but it really was too little, too late against a Sabres contingent that was undoubtedly going to go all-out in their home finale to give their fanbase something to feel good about during an otherwise disappointing campaign.
"They came hard tonight," said Nathan Beaulieu, who was on the ice when Sabres defenseman Rasmus Ristolainen opened the scoring just over six minutes into the opening period, before forward Tyler Ennis added what proved to be the game-winner at the 11:35 mark of the second. "They're out of the playoffs, so maybe we didn't expect them to put us on our toes a bit."
While the Canadiens weren't necessarily on point, though, Julien isn't concerned.
"I'm not worried. I know the guys will rebound," said Julien. "We could have easily let our guard down against Tampa Bay after clinching a playoff spot, but we battled and picked up a win. The same thing happened against the Florida Panthers."
Fortunately, two games remain to get a few things in order before the playoffs officially get underway next week. Up first is a date with the Lightning on Friday night at the Bell Centre, before the Canadiens close things out against the Red Wings on Saturday night in Detroit.