There was a time not too long ago when fans at the Bell Center in Montreal would taunt visiting teams by chanting Olé, Olé, Olé when their beloved hockey team was decidedly in control of the game. And there were times recently when hordes of Canadiens fans would invade Buffalo and taunt the Sabres during some of their most horrendous years in franchise history.
Times have changed recently for the Montreal Canadiens. Since losing in the Eastern Conference Finals in 2014, Les Habitants have had a roller coaster stretch that has them alternating playoff appearances and this year they're in a very unusual spot--27th place. The Canadiens haven't finished that low since 2011-12 when they finished 28th in the league just ahead of the Edmonton Oilers and Columbus Blue Jackets.
Montreal comes to Buffalo staggering having lost five in a row, nine of their last 10 (1-7-2) and at 9-24-4 have the worst road record in the league. Goaltending and defense, once a hallmark of the Canadiens with goalie Carey Price locking things down in net, has taken a beating this season. Four goalies have seen the crease for Montreal this season and their 3.08 goals-against average ranks 24th in the league. They also will head to KeyBank Center with the leagues worst road penalty kill at 66.7%.
Goaltending issues have gotten to the point where today's 'Five things to know' game preview from Pat Hickey of the Montreal Gazette asking "Who's the No. 1 goalie?"
"Antti Niemi is expected to start in goal for Montreal," wrote Hickey today, "with Carey Price getting the start at home Saturday against Washington. There’s a case to be made for Niemi to be considered the No. 1 goaltender in this upside-down season."
"Upside down" in net couldn't be worse for Montreal. Price was signed to an 8yr./$84 million contract extension last July for a $10.5 million cap-hit while Neimi is on a one-year deal worth $700K.
That said, there should be some relief tonight for the Canadiens as they've yet to lose to Buffalo this season (3-0-0.) The Habs beat Buffalo in the season opener 3-2 in the shootout, beat them 2-1 early in November in overtime and shut them out 3-0 later that month.
The Sabres have had trouble with Montreal going 3-4-3 in their last 10 vs. the Canadiens, 3-4-3 in their last 10 at home. Rookie goaltender Linus Ullmark is on recall from the Rochester Americans and is expected to get the start in net tonight. Ullmark has never faced Montreal in his 24 NHL appearances and he comes into the game with a 9-12-2 record for the Sabres with a 2.60 goals-against average and a .916 save percentage. In two games for Buffalo this year Ullmark is 1-1-0 with a 2.40 gaa and .933 sv%.
Something will give tonight as the Canadiens and their worst road record will face off against a Buffalo team that has the worst home record at 11-22-5.
Sabres bench boss Phil Housley, who's known to be rather subdued when behind the bench during games, apparently was unhappy with the way his team came out on the ice for practice yesterday. After getting manhandled by an Arizona Coyotes team 4-1 on Wednesday night. The 'Yotes and Sabres have been at or near the bottom of the league the entire season.
Reports from the rink had the Sabres coming out sluggish for practice. WGR550 Sabres beat reports wrote yesterday that assistant coach Davis Payne "had to tell some players to stop coasting." Shortly afterward Housley stopped practice and yelled "get on your toes and start working," with an expletive thrown in for emphasis. After practice Housley told the gathered media of the incident, “I just thought that we weren’t doing what I told them to do, which was a simple execution play, so I just tried to get their attention and I thought the execution from that point was good.”
With nine games left in a lost season, it's not surprising that practice isn't as sharp or intense as is should be, but there's been problems like this dating back to early in the season.
It's hard to judge Housley this season. He's a rookie coach who replaced a Stanley Cup-winning coach who didn't get through to this core group of players. There was a big turnover of players by a new GM to start the season that did little to address the talent-level. Housley made some egregious errors early in the season like messing with the league's best powerplay last season and insisting that Sam Reinhart play at center, but seems to have gotten his groove on as of late.
However, does he have it in him to turn this group around? Or has the respect he enjoyed during a very short honeymoon phase completely vanished?
Those questions will be answered this off season and more than likely into next season.