– For two days, the Buffalo Sabres
had been stewing in their own anger over allowing the Nashville Predators to score twice in the final 2:27 of regulation and again 27 seconds into overtime to steal away what looked to be a sure victory.
The Sabres found the best possible way to bury that bad memory by playing a nearly perfect road game in Montreal on Tuesday and beating the Canadiens 2-0 behind a 31-save shutout from Ryan Miller.
"There was a lot of anger and frustration with us giving away a point the other night," Sabres coach Lindy Ruff said of Sunday's 4-3 home loss to the Predators. "This was a real good answer for it."
It was Miller's fourth shutout of the year and 21st of his stellar career, but even he was able to admit it was just about as easy as a shutout can be thanks to his teammates sticking to the game plan and preventing the Canadiens from entering the same area code as his net.
"That might have been our best chess match of the year," Miller said. "We did a good job, we stuck to it all night. I thought all three periods we did exactly what we needed to do."
With Carolina beating the Ottawa Senators 4-3 in Raleigh, the victory allowed the Sabres (36-28-9) to maintain their three-point cushion over the Hurricanes for the eighth and final playoff spot in the Eastern Conference.
Aside from Miller keeping pucks out at one end, it was Nathan Gerbe scoring in a third straight game that allowed the Sabres to beat the Canadiens (40-27-7) in regulation for the first time in six tries this season.
It also maintained a Sabres trend of alternating wins and losses, one that's now lasted nine games since last winning or losing consecutive games on March 5 and 6.
"We played the kind of game we've been talking about and had some success with it," Miller said. "Getting that reward by playing the style that we need to play, hopefully that can spark some positive energy going forward."
Gerbe scored what turned out to be the winner at 8:56 of the second period, tipping home a turnaround slap pass by Tyler Myers. He added the insurance goal by stripping the puck from P.K. Subban at center ice and putting it in the empty net with 21.3 seconds to play for his 13th of the season and his fifth in five games.
"I was happy for him," Miller said. "It was a great effort in the second period getting loose after a long shift to get that goal. And that goal to seal it up came from a lot of smart plays in our zone and desperation."
While the Sabres were able to keep pace in the playoff race, the Canadiens were not as they fell three points behind Boston in the Northeast Division standings after the Bruins beat the New Jersey Devils 4-1 at home.
"When you play at this time of the year against a team fighting for a playoff spot, there's an element of desperation," coach Jacques Martin said. "On our side, after a decent first period, we weren't able to go to the net with authority or create chances in front of Miller. I think we made the night easy for him."
One game after pumping a season-high eight goals past Minnesota Wild goaltenders Jose Theodore and Nicklas Backstrom, the Canadiens could not get a single one past Miller, and didn't really threaten to very often in spite of outshooting Buffalo 31-24.
"We got some opportunities from the outside, but we didn't get too many second and third opportunities," Canadiens captain Brian Gionta said. "They did a good job of clearing the puck."
A big problem for the Canadiens all-season has been giving up power-play opportunities, Montreal was shorthanded five times in this game, upping their League-leading total to 298 shorthanded situations. Though the Canadiens didn't give up any power play goals, the penalty killing cut their momentum whenever it appeared to be picking up steam.
"By not getting pucks deep in the offensive zone, by turning it over in the neutral zone, you wind up playing in your own end and being tired," Martin said. "Consequently, you wind up taking penalties. You can't win hockey games that way."
The Canadiens next game is in Boston on Thursday, their first game against the Bruins since Zdeno Chara's hit on Max Pacioretty inflamed this Original Six rivalry even more. The Sabres, meanwhile, host the Florida Panthers and the Devils on Friday and Saturday, the first of four sets of back-to-back games over Buffalo's final nine games of the season.