MONTREAL – You don’t win points for style, so you’ll have to forgive the Montreal Canadiens for not being willing to toss back the two they earned in the standings with their 2-1 overtime win over the Buffalo Sabres on Saturday.
It was a hideous performance, on home ice, on Hockey Night in Canada – especially for a team that had lumbered out to a franchise-worst start to a season in 76 years before finally stringing together some wins to bring the playoff picture back to within view.
The Canadiens, who had won five of their last seven games coming into Saturday’s contest, had a layup and nearly bricked it off the bottom of the rim. The Sabres had come to town as the 30th-best hockey team in the 31-team NHL, on the heels of a 4-1 loss to the Florida Panthers a night prior, and were ripe for the taking.
And yet, somehow, it was the Sabres who took 25 of the first 36 shots recorded in Saturday’s game; it was the Sabres who led 1-0 after two periods; it was the 5-9-2 Sabres who looked like they were going to deliver a devastating blow to Montreal’s resurgence.
Le Journal de Montreal’s Jonathan Bernier jokingly asked Canadiens coach Claude Julien after the game if his team had intentionally tried to lull the Sabres to sleep through the first 40 minutes in order to pounce on their tired legs over the final 20.
“No,” said Julien. “That wasn’t exactly the strategy. If I drew up strategies like that, I wouldn’t be coaching here very long.”
The Canadiens, in spite of their (less-than-stellar) results this season, have been among the league’s top possession teams in just about all of their games. They rank third in the NHL in shot-attempt differential. They have ritually out-shot and out-chanced their opponents and ended up on the losing side of the equation more often than not – sometimes by as many as three goals, as was the case against the Minnesota Wild on Thursday. By the numbers, they’ve lost eight of 12 games in which they’ve out-shot their opponents.
Lindgren improved to 3-1 this season (6-1 over his career) with the 34-save performance and was named first star of the game. With the Hockey Night in Canada towel draped over his shoulders, he wore an ear-to-ear smile as he contemplated his reaction to seeing Canadiens captain Max Pacioretty score the overtime-winning goal.
“A lot of relief, and obviously super excited,” the Minnesotan said.
“For the team it’s a huge two points,” he said. “Coming back like that in the third period is not easy to do and we showed a lot of resiliency tonight. It was fantastic.”
It was necessary.
A loss would’ve made it a 1-2 week for the rested Canadiens against three teams who had come to Bell Centre on the second half of back-to-back games. It would’ve plundered them further down the depths of the standings.
It would’ve been unacceptable.
“I can’t say I’m extremely happy because I know we can play better,” said Julien. “But I’m not going to say I’m disappointed because we need to win games and we’ll take wins no matter how we get them.”
How did Julien react to the way his team played through the first two periods?
“I said something between every period,” he said. “I went in there after the first, I went in there after the second. You talk, you find different ways. I wasn’t happy with the first so you know what I might have said after the first and going into the second. It’s [about] the importance of winning a hockey game; ‘What are we willing to do?’
“We won tonight, but as I said, not good enough as far as the game’s concerned and we need to get better in those areas if we expect to be a successful team.”
No question about it.
So the Canadiens will take a day off Sunday and get back to work Monday before opening up next week’s slate by welcoming the Columbus Blue Jackets to the Bell Centre Tuesday. The Arizona Coyotes visit Thursday and the Toronto Maple Leafs visit Saturday.
By the end of the week, the Canadiens could find themselves in a playoff spot for the first time since winning their opening game of the season. We have no doubt they’d take that result, no matter how beautiful – or ugly – it looks along the way there.