MONTREAL – The Montreal Canadiens wanted to make the Bell Centre a feared venue for opposing teams again after finishing last in the NHL in home wins last season.
Thus far, they are doing just that.
The Canadiens took advantage of a flat Buffalo Sabres club Saturday afternoon to register their fourth straight win on home ice in a 6-1 blowout victory in the front end of their traditional Super Bowl weekend matinees.
Coach Michel Therrien made it a priority for the Canadiens from the day he was hired in June to improve on last season's home record of 16-15-10. The early returns look promising with a record of 4-1-0 at Bell Centre.
"I always believed this is the greatest place to play," Therrien said. "We have to play a game where we're pushing the pace, because I believe our team has speed. And pushing the pace makes it difficult on everyone. When we talk about being tough to play against, it's not only the physical aspect. It's our work ethic, our decisions with the puck, all these little things make teams tough to play against. Right now our team is buying into that."
The team did not have had much of a choice, because if the Canadiens continued to struggle at home to start this season, their playoff hopes could have been dashed very quickly.
The Canadiens' home game Sunday afternoon against the Ottawa Senators will be their sixth in eight games to start the season, part of a stretch that sees them play 12 of their first 18 games at home through Feb. 23. After that, the Canadiens will play 11 of 15 games on the road between Feb. 25 and March 27, so if they don't bank points at home now, it could make it difficult to make up ground later.
A big reason why the Canadiens are succeeding in doing that has been the resurgent play of Rene Bourque, who scored twice Saturday and has been a consistent performer on the team's top line with Tomas Plekanec and Brian Gionta.
Bourque struggled mightily after he was traded to the Canadiens by the Calgary Flames last season, and after undergoing abdominal surgery over the summer he says he was determined to show the team's fans the player they saw last season was not the one who put up back-to-back 27-goal seasons with the Flames in 2009-10 and 2010-11.
With three goals and two assists through seven games – a point total he had after his first 17 games with the Canadiens last season – Bourque is convincing people he can return to his form of old.
"I feel like I want to prove myself, prove that I'm a good player," Bourque said. "I never doubted myself. I had a tough time when I came over from Calgary, but over the summer I just wanted to focus on having a good season and making a difference on this team."
David Desharnais also scored twice, Lars Eller had a goal and two assists and Brendan Gallagher added a goal for the Canadiens (5-2-0), who welcomed defenseman P.K. Subban back into the lineup after he missed training camp and the first six games of the season in a contract dispute.
"When you're playing your first game and the team has a great start, it's sort of a relief and it's easier to handle the puck and do all that stuff," said Subban, who picked up his first point of the season assisting on Desharnais' second goal. "So I'm just happy with the win here today."
The Sabres were coming off a thrilling 7-4 win in Boston on Thursday, but none of that momentum appeared to make its way past the Canadian border and into Montreal.
"I think we left our heads in Boston," coach Lindy Ruff said.
The scorching-hot Thomas Vanek scored a shorthanded goal on a third-period breakaway to snap Carey Price's shutout bid and make it a 5-1 game, but it was far too late for the Sabres (3-4-1) to muster a comeback.
Vanek's goal gave him at least a point in each of the seven games he's played and increased his League-leading total to 16 points.
Sabres goaltender Ryan Miller did not make it to the third period, getting pulled by Ruff at the second intermission after allowing four goals on 21 shots. It was the third straight game Miller has allowed four goals, and his save percentage over that span is .862 while his record is 1-3-1 over his last five starts.
Still, Ruff commended Miller for keeping the score at 1-0 after a first period in which the Sabres were outshot 15-1.
"If Ryan doesn't play the way he did in the first, this could have really gotten out of hand," Ruff said. "It was out of hand as it was, but it could have really gotten out of hand."
Canadiens rookie Alex Galchenyuk had two assists for a third time in his last four games, giving the No. 3 pick in the 2012 NHL Draft a goal and six assists in seven games. Prior to the games Saturday night, that placed Galchenyuk third in rookie scoring behind Tampa Bay's Cory Conacher and St. Louis' Vladimir Tarasenko.
"I definitely put pressure on myself for the things I want to do, but coming into this League as an 18-year-old you don't expect to do [certain] things," Galchenyuk said. "You just have to stay patient and keep working hard and learn every day. That's what I think I'm doing."
Despite thoroughly dominating the first period, the Canadiens were eight seconds away from entering the first intermission in a scoreless tie. But a perfectly executed set play on the power play allowed Gionta to find Bourque driving the net at 19:52 to give Montreal a 1-0 lead.
The Sabres came out with more life in the second, but it was the Canadiens who took over the game in the period.
Gallagher scored his third of the season when his attempt to complete a give-and-go play with Galchenyuk wound up bouncing in off the stick of Sabres defenseman Christian Ehrhoff and past Miller at 2:03. Desharnais and Eller then scored goals 28 seconds apart at 10:08 and 10:36, with both getting their first goals of the season.
Bourque scored his second of the game at 1:22 of the third off a Plekanec feed that was a near-carbon copy of his first goal, beating Sabres backup Jhonas Enroth on the first shot he faced.
Marcus Foligno grabbed a Raphael Diaz giveaway to send Vanek away of his shorthanded breakaway at 3:01 of the third, but Desharnais got his second on a power play at 12:43 after Eller corralled a rebound of a Subban shot and set him up with an open net.