MONTREAL - The Montreal Canadiens played their seventh game in 11 days Saturday, and for the first period against the NHL's worst team, it showed.
Canadiens coach Michel Therrien then turned to the three players who provided his team with some semblance of energy over the opening 20 minutes, and his fourth line delivered.
Montreal's grind line of Brandon Prust, Travis Moen and Ryan White combined for five points and Carey Price made 23 saves to lead the Canadiens to their fifth straight win, 3-2 against the Buffalo Sabres on Saturday night.
The Canadiens (19-9-3) had four shots on goal during a sleepy first period. Therrien decided to start the second with the line centered by Prust, who scored a goal set up by White and Moen 19 seconds in and sparked his team to its ninth victory in 10 games (9-0-1).
"I didn't like our intensity in the first period and I didn't think we had the right attitude to start the game," Therrien said. "We discussed it after the first period, and those guys were intense. So we decided to start with those guys, and they got us a big goal."
That goal woke up some of Montreal's more traditional sources of offense, with Tomas Plekanec scoring a goal and an assist and Alex Galchenyuk scoring what turned out to be the winning goal.
It's not often a coach opens a period with his fourth line, even though Therrien has gotten some good hockey from that unit all season. His move did not go unnoticed by his players.
"Coach made a hell of a call to put the fourth line out for the opening faceoff," said Plekanec, who has five goals in eight games. "I thought it was a key to the game when we scored that first goal. Those guys played a hell of a game for us. I thought it was the key to the game.
"They've played great for us all season long and they showed it tonight. Especially when we had a tough time to get going; those guys stepped in and basically won the game for us."
The Canadiens came out of that brutal stretch of seven games in 11 days with a 6-0-1 record, bookended by wins against the Sabres.
"I won't hide it, this stretch scared us," Therrien said. "We wind up with 13 points out of a possibility of 14, so I think we have the right to be very satisfied."
Tyler Ennis had a goal and an assist and rookie Zemgus Girgensons snapped a 27-game goal drought for the Sabres (6-22-2), but it wasn't enough to give coach Ted Nolan his first win against a team other than the Toronto Maple Leafs.
The Sabres are 2-1-0 against the Maple Leafs since Nolan took over from Ron Rolston behind the bench Nov. 13, but 0-6-1 against everyone else. The game against the Canadiens did mark the first time the Sabres scored more than one goal against a team other than Toronto since Nolan took over.
"It's tough to find silver linings in losses," Nolan said. "Those mistakes are still there, but they're not as frequent as they were. We held a team to fewer than 20 shots on the road, so there are some positive things. We're getting better. Not in the leaps and bounds we'd like to get, but we're getting there."
Jhonas Enroth made 16 saves and took his first career loss against Montreal after winning his first three starts.
"We had some defensive breakdowns, but on a better night I probably would have come up with one of those saves," Enroth said. "It's not good enough tonight."
Price extended his streak of allowing two or fewer goals to 10 starts, running his record to 8-1-1 with a .949 save percentage during that span.
After a scoreless first period in which the Sabres and Canadiens combined for nine shots on goal, play picked up in the second with 23 shots and four goals between the two teams.
Prust got Montreal on the board 19 seconds into the period when he converted a feed by White for his third goal of the season. The Sabres tied it at 8:35 when Ennis scored his second goal in as many games, one-timing a Christian Ehrhoff feed from the corner past Price for his sixth of the season.
The Canadiens took control of the game when Plekanec and Galchenyuk scored 23 seconds apart late in the middle period.
Plekanec took a feed in front from Prust and wired it top corner past Enroth at 17:44 for his 11th goal of the season, tied with Max Pacioretty for the team lead. Off the ensuing draw the Canadiens entered the Sabres zone and Plekanec fed Andrei Markov with a pass that was in his skates, but Markov kicked it up to his stick before feeding Galchenyuk with a beautiful pass through the slot for his eighth goal of the season at 18:07 to put Montreal ahead 3-1.
Girgensons pulled the Sabres within a goal at 4:04 of the third on a great individual effort, with a little help from Canadiens defenseman P.K. Subban. Ennis flipped the puck into the Montreal zone and it wound up in Subban's skates, where Girgensons picked it up, moved around Subban and deked past Price for his second goal of the season and of his career.
"I've known the kid now for about three years and I've watched him play, and he does this all the time," Nolan said of Girgensons, a player he got to know while coaching the Latvian national team. "It's one of those things where with maturity and as his body matures, he's going to get better and better.
"But the one thing you can't teach somebody is that work ethic that he has."
The Sabres had a great opportunity to tie it when Subban was called for holding the stick at 11:08, but Buffalo's 25th-ranked power play could not get a shot on goal against Montreal's third-ranked penalty kill.
The Sabres got only one more shot on goal the rest of the game.