Antti Niemi deserved better on Thursday night, but his Montreal Canadiens didn’t.
Niemi made 38 saves and gave the Canadiens a fighting chance to win. Unfortunately for him, they surrendered three one-goal leads, were badly outplayed, and they were out-shot by a two-to-one margin in a 4-3 loss to the Buffalo Sabres.
Montreal’s fate was sealed on a power-play goal from Kyle Okposo with just over a minute remaining in regulation. A dagger, no doubt, leaving Niemi shaking his head and cursing under his mask as he watched the replay on the scoreboard.
Here are some takeaways from the game.
Max Domi at ease at centre
Domi, who was traded from Arizona to Montreal for Alex Galchenyuk back on June 15, opened the scoring for the Canadiens for the third time already in the early stages of this season.
It was easy to focus on the quick moves and lightning-fast release on the shot he took to beat Carter Hutton high over the glove side on the play. The replay didn’t even show where the play started.
What you might have missed was that it was Domi, after a strong half of a shift in his own end, collecting the puck below his own goal line and quickly transitioning it up the ice.
Finishing things off with a beautiful goal was a perfect example of what it takes to be a good centre in this league—playing all 200 feet of the ice.
There was plenty of questions about whether or not Domi could do that before he arrived in Montreal. His offence suffered greatly in spot duty at the position in Arizona. And the jury was still out after the Canadiens pushed through their exhibition schedule without Domi after he threw an unexpected punch at the Florida Panthers’ Aaron Ekblad that got him suspended for five pre-season games.
But when the puck dropped on the regular season, the signs that Domi could thrive at centre became apparent.
On Thursday, he extended his point streak to five games with the goal he scored 1:17 into the game. He added another on a great rush in the third period, notching his fourth of the season and his 10th point in nine games.
But seeing Domi sprint back to make a great defensive play on a Jake McCabe breakaway while the score was 3-3, with just over four minutes remaining in the game, is what should have Canadiens fans recognizing that he can be the reliable centre the team needs him to be.
Niemi full value
It’s easy to forget that Niemi came to the Canadiens after allowing 21 goals in just five games last season, posting an .834 save percentage with the Pittsburgh Penguins and Panthers before arriving in Montreal with his career hanging by a thread.
In 19 appearances with the Canadiens in the months that followed, Niemi had a .929 save percentage and a 2.41 goals-against average – all while the rest of the team was horrible in front of him.
He was that player in this game against the Sabres, making several quality stops on the likes of Jack Eichel, Casey Mittlestadt, Jeff Skinner and Connor Sheary.
As for the Canadiens, they weren’t exactly horrible in front of Niemi. But as we stated off the top, they were soundly out-played.
There was nothing for Niemi to do on the two goals Jason Pominville scored from the doorstep, and nothing he could do on Sam Reinhart’s game-tying goal at 13:07 of the third.
Okposo’s winner on the power play at 18:59 was a seeing-eye shot through a maze of bodies obstructing Niemi’s view.
Penalties hurt the Canadiens
There was a hold from Andrew Shaw that sent the Sabres to the power play while momentum was firmly on their side late in the second period.
That led to Pominville’s second goal of the night and tied the game at 2-2.
The tripping penalty on former Sabre Joel Armia, who scored the goal that put the Canadiens up 2-1 earlier in the hockey game, was a soft call with 1:19 remaining. It would have been considered a soft call at any point of the game, but there was nothing to do about it.
You knew it was going to be trouble for the Canadiens, who came into the game with the 17th-best penalty kill in the league. It was, with Okposo making it so.
This is an area of the game Montreal needs to do some work on.
As for the discipline aspect, Shaw’s lack of it might land him on the sidelines. He has 16 penalty minutes in seven games, and with Charles Hudon and Nikita Scherbak chomping at the bit to get into Montreal’s lineup, that’s going to be a strike against him.
Jesperi Kotkaniemi is heading towards the next phase
The youngest player in the NHL recorded his fourth point of the season when he beat out an icing and set up Armia for the goal scored 16:08 of the second period.
The game against Buffalo was his ninth of the season, and when he dresses for his 10th — which he’ll likely do against the Boston Bruins on Saturday — the first year of his entry-level contract will officially begin.