MONTREAL – In the words of Ryan Miller, the early season struggles of his Buffalo Sabres were a "dark kind of time."
It appears they are finally starting to see the light.
Thomas Vanek scored both goals in his first game back from a hip injury and Miller made 38 saves to lead the Buffalo Sabres to their third straight win and their second in a span of four days in Montreal against the Canadiens, this time by a 2-1 score Saturday.
"We went through a really dark kind of time, but something had to come from it," Miller said. "I think when we stick to a patient game, we can play with teams that have established a good reputation, that have established a good record like Montreal. But it's a matter of doing it night in and night out consistently, and we'll have to build that consistency and recognize what it does on the ice."
The victory pulled the Sabres (13-15-4) within two points of the eighth and final seed in the Eastern Conference, but Miller said he's not one to look at the standings because he knows Buffalo has a long road ahead of it to earn a spot in the dance.
"Maybe it helps some of the guys in the room, but for me, we're going to need to win hockey games right to the end," Miller said. "There's no easy way to get to the playoffs, even teams that are at the top can't coast in. You want to be playing good hockey for the next month here, so we just want to get our game together and see where we land."
The Sabres defeated the Canadiens (20-6-5) in similar fashion Tuesday, getting badly outshot 34-21, but proving to be more opportunistic before winning in overtime on a Steve Ott power-play goal.
The Canadiens outshot the Sabres 39-18 on Saturday and had the puck in the offensive zone for most of the night, racking up 85 shot attempts (shots on goal plus missed and blocked shots) to just 31 for Buffalo.
"It was good for our guys to be able to come in here twice in a week and get two wins," said Sabres interim coach Ron Rolston, who improved his record to 7-5-3 since replacing Lindy Ruff on Feb. 20. "With the team that Montreal has, they've only lost five games [in regulation time] all season, six now, but they're a great hockey team. So to come in here and get two wins is really good for our hockey team, it's a positive sign.
"I think we've been building in a positive direction," Rolston continued. "I think we have a ways to go, but I think guys can feel now that the momentum that they're building is in the right direction and we can continue from game to game and day to day to get better."
Despite the heavy advantage in shots for the Canadiens, only Michael Ryder was able to beat Miller with a power-play goal midway through the third period, his first point at home this season after getting 10 on the road since his trade from the Dallas Stars on Feb. 26.
The regulation loss was Montreal's first in eight games and just its second since Feb. 9, a span of 20 games.
"I think we got in there, we pushed them, got some good chances and, you know it's just one of those games where you play well and you don't win," Ryder said. "It's just what happened. We've got to give Buffalo credit; they played well in front of Miller and played pretty solid not letting us get to the net too much. But when we did, Miller made the saves."
It was a big bounce-back game for Miller, who came into Saturday with a 3-3-2 record, 3.47 goals against average and .884 save percentage in his previous eight starts, allowing three goals or more in seven of them.
Miller owned up to his struggles, saying they were largely mental and that he needed to simplify his game and trust himself and his teammates a little more, something he felt he did Saturday.
"If anyone's ever done something that has more than one moving part, like a golf swing or anything like that, you've got one thing going one way, or it could be two or it could be three, and you start thinking about the one, the two and the three when you shouldn't be thinking about anything," Miller said. "Just trying to simplify, start from a good place in the net for me and just try to trust and get in the flow of the game. That's where I've been trying to get for a while now, and I think it was more mental than anything. I was just trying to do too much and just being a little too aggressive."
The Canadiens completely dominated the first half of the game, outshooting the Sabres 19-6 at 9:48 of the second period but unable to turn significant offensive zone time into a goal. Miller made a number of big saves, including a nice pad stop on an Alex Galchenyuk tip late in the first and sliding post to post to deny Mike Blunden of a tap in early in the second.
But the 9:48 mark of the second was when P.K. Subban was called for delay of game with Blunden already in the box, giving the Sabres a 5-on-3 power play and shifting the momentum of the game.
Vanek converted at 10:25 when he tipped Christian Ehrhoff's slap shot from the point past Carey Price.
The Canadiens had vehemently argued that Subban's clearing attempt in fact hit the glass before hitting the protective netting behind the Montreal net, but afterwards defenseman Josh Gorges said that is ultimately irrelevant to both the outcome of the game and of the failed penalty kill.
"Those are the things that happen during the course of a game that are out of our control, and we're not a team that's going to sit and make excuses," he said. "If that's the call, there's nothing we can do about it, we have to go out there and kill the 5-on-3, get the job done."
The Sabres made it 2-0 with 38.3 seconds to play in the period on a pretty passing play that began with Ville Leino passing it cross ice for Tyler Ennis, who immediately sent it in front to a cutting Vanek, who deked to his backhand to beat Price at 19:21.
"I thought it was a great play, we went side to side cross-ice and we were able to finish it," Vanek said. "It was a complete line effort there."
The goal came on the Sabres' 14th shot of the game, more than doubling their total from the first 30 minutes in the second half of the second period.
The Canadiens went back to controlling the play in the third, outshooting Buffalo 16-4 and finally converting at 8:17 when Andrei Markov found Ryder alone in front for a deflection over Miller's right shoulder with Marcus Foligno in the box to make it 2-1 Sabres.