In their last two games, the Buffalo Sabres have excelled at limiting their opponents’ scoring opportunities. Now, they’ll get to put that to the test against a high-powered offense that has yet to meet its match this season.
The Montreal Canadiens come into First Niagara Center on Friday night with a perfect 7-0-0 record. Not only are they second in the League in scoring with 23 goals for, but they’ve also only allowed a league-low seven against.
Coming off of their second win of the season, Buffalo will need to be at its best.
“You’re aware of their record,” Sabres forward Evander Kane said. “They haven’t lost and they’ve obviously carried that momentum from the beginning of the season. It’s just an opportunity for you to bring your best and challenge them and see what you can do and hopefully end that winning streak.”
Chad Johnson will start in net for Buffalo, but Sabres coach Dan Bylsma said that the rest of his lineup will be a game-time decision. Bylsma mixed up his lines for the team’s morning skate, placing Kane on the left wing on a line with Ryan O’Reilly at center and Sam Reinhart on the right and putting Tyler Ennis, Jack Eichel and Brian Gionta, from left to right, on a line together as well.
Coverage begins at 6:30 p.m. with Tops Sabres Gamenight on MSG-B and Bell TV. The game can also be heard live on WGR 550. Puck drop is scheduled for 7 p.m.
If their recent play is any indication, Buffalo might be facing Montreal’s high-scoring offense at the right time. The Sabres have allowed the second-fewest shots against per game in the League at 25.3 and have kept each of their last two opponents under 25 shots.
Montreal, meanwhile, leads the NHL with 34.3 shots per game.
“This is one of those teams and one of those games that you need to have a real tight five-man unit all over the ice,” defenseman Josh Gorges, a former Canadien, said. “When we’re on the forecheck, we’ve got to be hard and in their face, can’t let them make clean plays. And when they’re coming into our end we need to force, push them back allowing us to stand up again and play in their face.
“They’re a team that gets the puck and they try to funnel it to the net from everywhere and have guys go across the crease so it’s important for us to have good sticks and do a real good job in front of our net.”
The Sabres have played that way in their last two games especially, and Bylsma points to opponents’ scoring chances as an indication. By the team’s count, they limited Toronto to eight scoring chances in their 2-1 shootout win on Wednesday and held Tampa Bay to nine in a 2-1 loss on Saturday.
He knocked on the podium as to not jinx it when he spoke of just how impressive those numbers are.
“When you start talking about getting down into under 10 chances a game and near 20 shots against a game, you’re in some pretty good waters,” he said. “We talked about it in the summer time; we’re going to have to be a good defensive team. We’re going to have to be a team that doesn’t give up much and I think as a group, as a team, we’ve done a good job of buying into that.”
SCOUTING THE HABS
One area in particular that has been a key to the Canadiens’ success this season has been a stellar penalty kill unit that ranks among the best in the NHL. They’ve killed penalties at a 91.7 percent rate, second only to Edmonton.
“They’re a quick team who pressures the puck really well,” Kane said. “They’ve got a lot of small little guys that are quick and can get on you pretty quick. We’ve just got to outwork them and get as many pucks to their net as we possibly can.”
While the Sabres power play hasn’t scored in their past two games, Bylsma said Friday that their performances on special teams in those contests were the best of the season so far.
“Our power play, we’ve been working at certain areas,” Bylsma said. “We haven’t been real successful the last two games in scoring goals but it’s been our best two games in a lot of the areas we want to be good in, which is shot totals and generating shots and chances.”
The chances the Sabres do generate won’t be on reigning Vezina Trophy-winner Carey Price, who will rest for the Canadiens on Friday. Rookie goaltender Mike Condon, who stopped 20 of 21 shots in his NHL debut against Ottawa on Oct. 11, will get the start for Montreal.
On offense, Montreal’s top line has been as successful as any in the league. Linemates Tomas Plekanec and Max Pacioretty each have five goals this season. Dallas’ Jamie Benn and Jason Spezza are the only other pair of teammates in the League to have both reached that mark.
ULLMARK CALLED UP
Linus Ullmark was at dinner on Thursday when he received the call that he’d been called up to the NHL for the first time in his career. It was a call the 22-year-old netminder had waited his entire life to take.
“Super excited,” he said. “It’s like a dream come true. We were always thinking about this growing up and now I’m here and I’m really excited for it.”
The call came sooner than expected. After undergoing surgery on both hips in April, it was unclear how long it would take the goaltender to return to the ice in any fashion. Then, once he did return, the next question was how long it might take for him to adjust to a new style of hockey. Coming into the season, Ullmark had never played a game in North America.
Well, he got on the ice quicker than expected, participating in skates at the end of Training Camp and ultimately making his American Hockey League debut with Rochester on Oct. 10. He made 38 saves in a winning effort.
That doesn’t mean there haven’t been adjustments.
“There’s a lot of difference, just because the ice is smaller,” Ullmark said. “It’s tighter and all of the bodies are way closer to you all the time. It’s always a threat when they have the puck in [your] zone compared to in Europe, the boards are way out so if you shoot it from the boards it’s always an easy shot … when you’re here you can always be sure that someone’s going to tip it or the key is to put it top shelf.”
Ullmark said that he realized after his first period in Rochester that he felt fully healthy and that the surgery has actually made him a more agile goaltender. Bylsma did not say when Ullmark might make his NHL debut.
His play so far in the AHL should give him some confidence. Despite losing two of the three games he’s started, Ullmark posted a .932 save percentage and ranks fifth in the AHL with 110 saves. He made 43 saves in a 4-2 loss to Utica on Wednesday.
“The transition has been going quite well,” he said.
9 Evander Kane – 90 Ryan O’Reilly – 23 Sam Reinhart
63 Tyler Ennis – 15 Jack Eichel – 12 Brian Gionta
26 Matt Moulson – 28 Zemgus Girgensons – 82 Marcus Foligno
44 Nicolas Deslauriers – 22 Johan Larsson/17 David Legwand – 88 Jamie McGinn
4 Josh Gorges – 55 Rasmus Ristolainen
29 Jake McCabe – 3 Mark Pysyk
6 Mike Weber – 46 Cody Franson
31 Chad Johnson
35 Linus Ullmark