If Jason Pominville didn't receive the loudest ovation when the Buffalo Sabres were introduced on Thursday night, he was at least a close second. They only grew louder as the night progressed, as Pominville rocked the KeyBank Center crowd with a pair of goals in his return to Buffalo.
For the Sabres to earn a win in their season opener against the Montreal Canadiens, however, it would have taken one more ovation. Pominville shot wide on a shootout attempt, one of three unsuccessful tries by Buffalo in a 3-2 loss.
Jonathan Drouin scored the winning goal in the shootout for Montreal.
"It was a pretty special night," Pominville said. "It would have been nice to hit the net there in the shootout and find a way to win the game, but I thought overall the effort was definitely there. We did a lot of good things. If we play this way on a consistent basis we'll give ourselves a good chance to win a lot of games."
Video: Pominville: Postgame Interview vs. MTL
Optimism was the prevailing theme in the dressing room even in spite of the result, and for good reason. The Sabres outshot the Canadiens 45-40 and dominated the pace of play for much of the second and third periods.
Phillip Danault scored a shorthanded goal with 11:59 remaining in the third to erase a 2-1 lead for Buffalo. The Sabres had looked dangerous on four prior power plays and had scored on one; they seemed primed to extend their lead when Andrew Shaw was sent to the box for interference.
Instead, missed execution led to the Sabres being stuck in their own zone and Danault squeezed a wraparound attempt between the post and the skate of goalie Robin Lehner.
"We sort of took the foot off the gas there," Sabres coach Phil Housley said. "We could've made it a two-goal game and really got some momentum back."
"It's a fast play," Lehner said. "I get there with my skate and it goes up on me and hits my pad and it goes in. It happens in a split second and it's frustrating, but it's a lucky goal."
Overall, though, Housley felt encouraged by the way the team executed his system. When they controlled the pace of play in the second and third periods, they did it with a dominant forecheck that saw defensemen pinching down the boards to extend plays.
In those times, when the Canadiens tried to break the puck out, they were often met by either a body along the boards or a stick at the blue line. When they did break out, the Sabres regrouped and brought it to them again.
"That's the game we want play," Sabres forward Jack Eichel said. "Take it to the other team, put a lot of pressure on them. It's something we've been working on with our F3, reloading over the top, our D going down the walls, keeping plays alive, making it hard for them to break the puck out. I think when we had sustained pressure in zone we were doing that."
Housley felt his team out chanced Montreal offensively, but they were only able to capitalize twice. Pominville opened the scoring on the power play in the first period, beating Montreal goalie Carey Price with a backhand attempt on the rush.
Video: MTL@BUF: Pominville finds net on backhanded shot
Max Pacioretty tied the game for Montreal later in the period, but Pominville struck again 22 seconds into the second. This time he was benefactor of a tremendous feed from Eichel, who went high-to-low to set up Pominville for a one-timer to the left of the net.
Video: MTL@BUF: Pominville nets his second goal of the game
"I just kind of got lost and I think he saw me before he got the puck," Pominville said. "I think we both kind of knew what we were doing … Not many guys can make that type of pass and he did."
Price stifled the Sabres from thereon out, ending his night with 42 saves. Lehner came up big for Buffalo as well with a 38-save performance.
Still, the Sabres feel that if they play this way on a regular basis, they'll capitalize on their chances more often than not. There will be things to clean up, of course, and they were disappointed with the loss. But for a young team just beginning to grasp a new system, it was a positive start.
"I think our guys did a terrific job," Housley said. "When you look at the game and you think about the game, we outshot a team, we out chanced a team, we just didn't beat them on the scoreboard. But I really liked the efforts of our guys. You could see things are coming together.
"We took a step forward tonight. We don't like the result obviously, but I think we can take a lot of things from this game as we move forward in the future here, starting on Saturday."
The game marked Housley's first behind the bench as an NHL head coach. The former Sabre and Hall-of-Fame defenseman was well-received with one of the loudest ovations during introductions.
"I was just proud to be behind the bench of our players tonight because of their effort," he said. "I really appreciate the fans, they were great tonight. I think they were entertained and hopefully we're going to have a lot more of that in the future, but it was exciting being the head coach of the Buffalo Sabres.
"I'm just really proud of this community and I love this city so moving forward hopefully we can create some more excitement."
In addition to Housley, eight players made their Sabres debuts: forwards Seth Griffith, Jacob Josefson and Jordan Nolan and defensemen Victor Antipin, Nathan Beaulieu, Marco Scandella and Matt Tennyson.
Griffith earned the assist on Pominville's power play goal for his first point as a Sabre.
Lehner still working on shootouts
Video: Lehner: Postgame Interview vs. MTL
Lehner made no excuses for his lack of success in the shootout. Although it was true that he did not allow Paul Byron to score on Montreal's first attempt of the night, which snapped a 0-for-8 streak on shootout save attempts that dated back to last season, he was quick to correct a suggestion that he had actually made a save.
"I didn't stop it, it hit the post," Lehner said. "It's no secret, I struggled last year with it. I'm trying to move forward. It takes some guts to get out of this hole on the shootouts. But I can't pout about it, I'm working on it. Obviously it's not working yet but hopefully it'll come."
The Sabres will play their first road game of the season on Saturday against the New York Islanders at Barclays Center in Brooklyn. New York won 3-1 when the two teams met in Buffalo's preseason finale on Sept. 29.
Coverage on Saturday begins at 6:30 p.m. with the GMC Pregame Show on MSG-B. The game can also be heard live on WGR 550, with puck drop set for 7 p.m.