THE ASSOCIATED PRESS
BUFFALO, N.Y. — Canadiens coach Guy Carbonneau said the ball is in Carey Price’s court. So far, the rookie netminder is holding serve.
Price won his second straight start since taking over as Montreal’s top goalie, and Tomas Plekanec had three power-play goals for his first hat trick in the Canadiens’ 6-2 win over the Buffalo Sabres on Friday night.
Plekanec added an assist, Mark Streit had a goal and two assists, and Alex Kovalev had four assists for Montreal. The Canadiens moved ahead of idle Ottawa into first place in the Northeast Division — the first time this season — with their sixth win in eight games.
"He’s playing solid," Carbonneau said about the 20-year-old Price, who was handed the No. 1 goalie duties following Tuesday’s trade of Cristobal Huet to Washington. "Not that I see a big difference, but you can see he’s more calm and really poised in the net."
It helps when Price has a surging team in front of him. Montreal has scored 11 goals in its last two games since being shut out by Columbus last Saturday, and its top-ranked power-play unit roughed up the Sabres by going 3-for-3.
The Canadiens, one point behind Eastern Conference-leading New Jersey heading into their game with the Devils on Saturday, have now connected five times over the past two games with the man advantage to raise their power-play efficiency rating to over 25 per cent.
"It’s easier to play when your team is playing so well in front of you," said Price, who finished with 31 saves. "We have to keep rolling and stay consistent."
Price was staked to a quick 2-0 lead on Plekanec’s first goal of the game just 84 seconds in and Streit’s 11th of the year midway through the first period.
After Buffalo’s Thomas Vanek cut the deficit in half with his team-leading 27th 3:56 into the second period, Plekanec broke the game open with consecutive goals 11 minutes apart to give the Canadiens a 4-1 lead after two.
"It was one of those nights when you got the puck in the offensive zone, it ended up in the net," said Plekanec, who increased his career-high goal total to 24. "The power play is really big for us right now."
Andrei Kastsitsyn and Siarhei Kastsitsyn also scored for the Canadiens, who had lost the last three meetings against Buffalo.
Vanek added an assist, and Tim Connolly had a goal for the Sabres, who have dropped three of four. Buffalo remained tied for eighth place with Philadelphia with 71 points, but the Flyers hold the tiebreaker for the final playoff spot in the Eastern Conference.
"They scored an early goal on the power play and got us down right away," said Sabres centre Derek Roy, who had two assists to extend his career-high points streak to eight games. "They’re a team that plays well with the lead."
Buffalo goalie Ryan Miller had 27 saves.
.The banged-up Sabres front line was helped by the return of wingers Drew Stafford and Maxim Afinogenov. Stafford returned after missing 10 games because of an ankle injury, while Afinogenov missed the past 26 games because of a groin tear.
Still, their offence struggled after scoring eight times in a win against Nashville on Wednesday.
"Our defence got caught and our forwards didn’t cover up," Sabres coach Lindy Ruff said. "It made for a pretty embarrassing night."
Andrei Kastsitsyn scored 2:39 into the third before Connolly’s power-play goal made it 5-2 with 8:57 left in regulation.
Siarhei Kastsitsyn capped the scoring with 2:28 remaining.
Notes: The Sabres wrap up their season-high, five-game homestand on Sunday against league-leading Detroit. … Miller was making his 18th straight start. … Buffalo C Jochen Hecht missed his fourth game because of a pulled muscle in his leg. … Montreal D Andrei Markov missed about five minutes of the second period after Buffalo forward Patrick Kaleta’s shoulder connected squarely with Markov’s jaw on a check in the Canadiens zone.