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Not much separates Habs, Sabres @NHLdotcom

CANADIENS (1-0-0) at SABRES (0-0-0)

Season series: Buffalo was 4-1-1 against Montreal last season, after a season-opening 2-1 shootout victory at home. Montreal won at home, 3-2, on Nov. 29 and 4-3 at home on Dec. 20 before Buffalo won the final three games of the series, including their final game, a 4-3 shootout win at Montreal on March 28.

Big Story: Both teams were playoff-bound until Sabres goalie Ryan Miller got hurt in late February and Buffalo faded. The teams finished two points apart, Buffalo missing the playoffs. The teams' off-season approaches can only be described as polar opposites. Buffalo is sticking with the same team in the belief the players have reached maturity and have talent. Montreal jettisoned 11 members of its roster and has three new defensemen and four new forwards acquired by trade or free agency. Also, the door is open for the Canadiens' bumper crop of draft picks to bid for NHL jobs. Jacques Martin is the new Canadiens coach.

Team Scope:

Canadiens: The Canadiens' year-long celebration of their centennial ends Dec. 4 when the Boston Bruins visit. Just as well, because it was a distraction for a team already distracted by dressing-room tensions and tuning out the coach. Molson re-acquired the team and let General Manager Bob Gainey rebuild. The new club's offense is built around center Scott Gomez and wingers Mike Cammalleri, Brian Gionta and Max Pacioretty. Tomas Plekanec and Andrei Kostitsyn need to bounce back. Maxim Lapierre is highly underrated. Jaroslav Halak outplayed Carey Price in the preseason but Price will be the No. 1 goalie. He's under a microscope. The defense appears stronger than a year ago.

Sabres: The most important question to be answered is who can do more because last year wasn't quite good enough. Can Derek Roy top his team-leading 70 points? Yes, but probably not by much. He had 28 goals, could get more. Thomas Vanek has averaged 40 goals for three seasons. He could improve his 28 assists. Jason Pominville can do better than 20 goals. Connolly had 47 points in 48 games. Projected over a whole season … face it, Connolly hasn't played a full season since 2003. Drew Stafford is trending upward and can improve on his 20 goals. Defensemen Chris Butler and Andrej Sekera have to produce more offense now that Jaroslav Spacek and Ales Kotalik are gone. Rookie defenseman Tyler Myers had 33 assists last season in juniors. Patrick Lalime has to be better as the backup goalie.

Who's Hot: Miller had a career-best 2.53 goals-against average and .918 save percentage. It's probably a reflection of team play, but Miller's numbers are rarely among the league leaders yet, when you watch him, you realize he's one of the best NHL goalies. Checking-line center Maxim Lapierre was one of the few players who improved for Montreal last season. It took the 2003 second-rounder a few years to establish himself, but now he's coming off his best year offensively while his confidence in his defensive game is high.

Injury Report: Buffalo's fourth-line center, Adam Mair, is out until mid-October following hip surgery. Montreal's Kyle Chipchura is out indefinitely following shoulder surgery. Andrei Markov severed an ankle tendon in a collision with Price. He was operated on Thursday night in Toronto and is expected to miss 2-3 months.

Stat Pack: Defenseman Jaroslav Spacek led the Sabres with an average of 22:16 minutes of ice time per game last season. Now with the Canadiens, Spacek logged a team-leading 24:42 minutes Thursday night. He also led the defense with four shots.

Puck Drop: Odd stat from Montreal's opener: Montreal was built to be fast and offensively oriented: Toronto was built to be tough. Montreal outhit Toronto, 37-22, and Toronto outshot Montreal, 46-27. Price was outstanding and won the game for the Habs.

-- John McGourty,


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