This four-part series will look at how the Buffalo Sabres will stack up against their Northeast Division foes in the shortened season. Follow me on Twitter to keep up with NHL and Sabres news all season long: @SwordPlay18.
The Buffalo Sabres enjoyed their matchups against the Montreal Canadiens last year to say the least. The Sabres went 5-0-1 against the Habs last season, picking up 11 of a possible 12 points and helping to relegate them to last place in the Northeast Division and the Eastern Conference.
The Canadiens certainly had their pluses last season, but the team was plagued by under-performing veterans and injuries.
So, this season the Canadiens start with a new general manager in Marc Bergevin, a new head coach in Michel Therrien (who is starting his second stint for the Habs), and a shiny new toy in the third-overall pick in the draft, American hero Alex Galchenyuk.
What do these changes mean for their matchup with the Sabres?
The Canadiens have an extremely strong first line in Max Pacioretty, David Desharnais and Erik Cole. Each scored at least 60 points last year, and Pacioretty and Cole scored 32 and 35 goals respectively. Cole’s veteran leadership was the perfect combination with the young, flashy Desharnais and Pacioretty and many can expect that to continue this year.
Beyond that, the Canadiens may have some issues.
Galchenyuk is easily one of the best prospects in hockey already, but to expect him to contribute at a Calder-winning level would be naive, given the cast of characters around him. Barring injury, he will not be playing with any of Cole, Desharnais or Pacioretty. Lars Eller has not lived up to his billing since coming over from St. Louis in the Jaroslav Halak trade. While you can expect a 20-goal level season – in an 82 game season – from Brian Gionta, he battled injuries all last year, and is 32. Tomas Plekanec may be their most talented scorer, but he doesn’t seem to be able to put together two good seasons in a row. Rene Bourque is, well Rene Bourque, easily one of the most frustrating players in the NHL in terms of not using the talent he was given.
Basically, the Canadiens are going to struggle with secondary scoring.
They have gotten tougher, with Brandon Prust and Colby Armstrong supplementing the bottom six forwards, and those two are gamers and will not make the Habs easy to play against, but they don’t help much on the scoreboard.
But, realistically, if you shut down the top line, there’s a good chance you’re coming out with the victory. Last year, the Sabres held the top line to the following lines:
Pacioretty 2G – 4A – 6Pts -1
Desharnais 1G – 3A – 4Pts +1
Cole 2G – 2A – 4Pts -3
If that continues, the Sabres should continue to have a lot of success against the Habs’ forwards.
The Canadiens’ defense is in a tough spot right now with PK Subban, the Canadiens’ premier free agent last summer, still unsigned. He has not taken part in the team’s training camp and, by most accounts, he and the Canadiens brass are not close on a deal.
If Subban doesn’t play, this blue line is in big trouble. Even if he does play, they have their fair share of holes.
Andrei Markov and Tomas Kaberle are both 34 and aren’t getting any younger. Markov has played only 20 games the past two seasons after sustaining two knee injuries, and Sabres fans may remember Tyler Ennis rudely welcoming him back last season. Kaberle had a solid year offensively for the Habs in his 43 games after being traded from Carolina, but his defense isn’t getting any better.
Alex Emelin and Josh Gorges are good defenseman, but Emelin struggled in his own zone last year, as evidenced by his minus-18 stat, and Gorges is a stout, positional defenseman that hardly gets beat, but he just doesn’t have that complete shutdown gear he needs to take it to the next level.
Essentially, without Subban the likelihood is that 20-year old Jarred Tinordi will get a go.
If injuries were to befall the Habs during the year and Subban were to not get signed, this could be an AHL-caliber defense in a blink of an eye.
This is easily the Canadiens’ strength.
Carey Price may not of had the Vezina-level season he did in 2010-11 last year, but with a 2.43 goals against average and a .916 save percentage in 65 games, his play did not regress.
Montreal simply did not have a good enough team in front of Price to make his job any easier. Missing four games with a concussion did not help things either.
But, Price is one of the few goalies that can carry a team like Ryan Miller has done in the past, with his 2010-11 performance a perfect example of that. That Habs team had no business taking the eventual Stanley Cup Champion Bruins to seven games, but Price allowed them to do just that.
There are a few things you can take as given for Sabres-Canadiens games: You will want to throw a Habs fan from the upper bowl onto the ice by the end of the game, you will hear the “Ole” chant at least once, and the Sabres will need to figure out Carey Price to win.
The Canadiens probably have another rough year ahead of them, and its imperative for the Sabres to take advantage of the games against them. If the Sabres want to make a serious playoff push, they’ll need to take at least seven of the available 10 points against the Canadiens, and they should. The series goes 3-1-1 for the Sabres.