Reprinted with permission from hockeybuzz.com
The Buffalo Sabres continue a four-game homestand tonight as they host the Montreal Canadiens, a team that they've played 262 times. It's not hard to imagine the Les Habitants, a franchise with 24 Stanley Cups and over 3000 wins, dominating the Sabres. But, oddly enough, through four and a half decades of battling with Montreal, the Sabres have a 119-106-37 record in the series.
Recent history, though, hasn't been so kind. Although they are 4-6-0 in their last 10 games against Montreal, the Sabres haven't beaten the Canadiens since a 2-1 victory in Montreal on March 23, 2013. Since then Buffalo is 0-5-0, have scored only four goals and were shut out in the last two meetings.
Montreal enters tonight's contest with 17 points via an 8-4-1 record, good for second in the Atlantic Division. After a hot start, they've cooled considerably going 0-2-1 in their last three including back-to-back blowouts at home. They were dumped 6-2 by the upstart Calgary Flames on Sunday and were shut out by the Chicago Blackhawks 5-0 last night.
Perhaps their start was done with smoke and mirrors. As they stand right now they are 27th in the league with 2.15 goals/game, 22nd with a 3.18 goals-against average while their powerplay is clicking at a meager 8.1% (28th in the league.) They're only statistical brightspot is their top-10 penalty kill which is at 85.4%.
Are they missing former players Brian Gionta and Josh Gorges, players now on the Sabres? Probably at least a little right now as the Canadiens are adapting to life without them. Although Gionta was no Guy Lafluer and Gorges no Serge Savard, both contributed in their roles and both, as fellow blogger Eric Engels once wrote me, "will set the proper examples on and off the ice."
Of the two, Gorges has contributed the most to the Sabres right now. Granted, a 3-9-1 shouldn't be construed as planning a parade, but the 6'1" 201 lb. defensive defenseman has proved to be a steadying force on the back end while being paired with Tyler Myers. Gorges is logging over 22 minutes of ice-time per game and leads the league in blocked shots with 56 on a team that's last in the league allowing 36.6 shots per game.
Gionta hasn't done all that much to this point and has put in merely a handful of solid performances as a Buffalo Sabre. Fans shouldn't have expected a 30-goal season from the small winger, but his stat-line of zero goals, 1 assist and a minus-5 rating is something that should be eating at him.
Perhaps tonight's game against his former team will provide the spark. Montreal moved on from Gionta this summer after the four-year captain helped lead the team to the Eastern Conference Finals. Sabres GM Tim Murray had the opportunity to speak with Gionta at the 2014 Draft and on July 1st, the Rochester, NY native signed a three year contract with the Sabres.
It was quite the coup for new GM Murray as the Sabres were coming off of a last place finish in full rebuild-mode. “Yesterday he was the captain of the Montreal Canadians, a storied franchise, a playoff team. That wasn’t a token title. That was real,” Murray said at the time. “There is stuff in this game that’s real and stuff that’s not real. And that’s real stuff. That’s legendary stuff. And he’s now a Buffalo Sabre.”
Throngs of Montreal media descended upon the First Niagara Center probing both Gionta and Gorges for glimpses into their psyche for the game, but they're not placing too much of an emphasis on upstaging their former team. “The first time’s always the toughest,” Gionta said. “It’s good friends, it’s memories,” the Sabres captain continued, “You’ve been there five years. You build a lot of friendships and stuff. At the same time, it’s a new chapter and you’re excited to kind of go out there and play against them.”
Said Georges about playing his former team, "It’s no different than when we play against other teams in the league, guys I’ve played with before, guys I grew up with, played junior with – all different types of things,” he said. “You know these guys personally, but when the puck drops, they’re wearing a different color jersey than you are.”
Gorges could easily have a huge chip on his shoulder for essentially being rejected by the Canadiens. After eight season with the club, the team asked him for a list of teams that he'd accept a trade to and in July he was dealt to the Sabres. "It was shocking because of the things that were going on there were great, the team was succeeding, we had a great playoff run," he said at just after the trade to Warren Henderson, Kelowna Cap News. "You never expect to be traded but you always know that there's a chance. You hope it never does happen to you, especially when you're in the right situation like I was in Montreal."
But that was months ago, and as expected, the focus for him is on the here and now with the Buffalo Sabres. "My team is here in Buffalo,” he said yesterday. “That’s where my focus is. That’s where my head is at. Things have happened in the past you have no control on, so there’s no sense in thinking about what-ifs or what could’ve been. The focus is on today, here and now.”
Michal Neuvirth is getting the start in net tonight. The former Washington Capital has a pretty good record vs. the Canadiens. He is 5-3-0 with a 2.25 goals against average and a .925 save percentage. Neuvirth has been plugging along and despite being loosely pegged as the backup to Jhonas Enroth to begin the year, it seems as if he may have nudged ahead in the race. While both have been sitting ducks in a shooting gallery to this point in the season, Neuvirth has held up better.
Defenseman Nikita Zadorov is getting his second straight start as Mike Weber and Andre Benoit head to the pressbox tonight.
Zadorov has been working hard, according to head coach Ted Nolan, and has been chompin' at the bit to play. The hulking defenseman with offensive upside even gave Nolan a look that said, "put me in coach" while the Sabres were in a 5-on-3 powerplay.
Although he didn't get in, he's getting noticed for all the right things by Nolan. “I really liked him,” Nolan said of Zadorov. “He’s one of those kids that brings enjoyment to the game. On the power play, he looked down at me and wanted to get out there on the power play. Last minute of play, he wants to get out there. This kid has no panic in his game, and he’s going to be a good one once he really matures.
“He’s been working his behind off every day in practice and working on his game. He’s getting better.”
Zadorov's situation is still muddled. As seen in Nolan's words, the "once he really matures" part of the statement above means Zadorov's not fully ready for NHL duty. Unfortunately, the tug of war between the CHL and KHL for his services should the Sabres send the kid down to London means that he'll be with the team in a state of limbo.
Forward Brian Flynn is in the lineup tonight for the third straight game.
Flynn had been patiently biding his time on the bench while the team gave ample opportunity to Sam Reinhart. The versatile forward scored his first goal of the season against Detroit on Sunday when he followed up some hard work by Zemgus Girgensons.
"It’s always nice to get the first one of the year out of the way That one always seems to be the hardest one, but I try not to put any pressure on myself to score. I just focus on some other things, defensively I try to be responsible out there and the goals will start to follow.”
Most of the Sabres are struggling "getting that first one out of the way" as only nine players on the roster have scored thus far.
“Obviously you don’t like sitting. It’s frustrating watching for, you know, five consecutive games or so,” Flynn said. “Then when you get in there you realize it’s a lot more fun playing, so you want to do a good job and play hard when you’re in there and make it hard on them to pull you back out of the lineup.”
Nolan loves that approach, "He doesn’t complain," said the coach. "He’s a pro. And for him to sit and watch for the first nine games pretty much, to sit back and not complain but keep working all of a sudden, like I said, I think good things happen to good people.”
Johan Larsson gets another go at it as forward Marcus Foligno is still dinged up. He'll be start out skating on the left wing with Cody Hodgson and Drew Stafford. It will be his second game with the big club since being called up from the Rochester Americans. In nine games with the Amerks he had three goals and five assists and was a plus-1.
Finally, even though the Sabres are in a predictable funk to start the season, Nolan hasn't lost his sense of humor.
It was pointed out that the visiting Canadiens are susceptible to giving up the first goal having done so in 11 of 13 games, to which Nolan replied, "We’re susceptible to not getting the first goal."
Tonight's projected lineup:
17, 63, 80
26, 28, 12
22, 19, 21
44, 8, 65