Buffalo Sabres Division Foes: Montreal Canadiens

With the reformatting of the divisional format in the NHL, you might be left with questions about the team’s in Buffalo’s division, the Atlantic Division. Who will the Sabres be seeing a lot of? Where will they shake out?

Thankfully for you, that’s where I come in. Welcome to your guide to the division.


Montreal Canadiens

What did they do last year?

Going into the season, the Canadiens weren’t on anyone’s mind. They were coming off a 2011/12 season where they finished both last in the Northeast Division and Eastern Conference. Sure, they were adding the talented Alex Galchenyuk through the draft but no one expected that to be a huge addition.

Galchenyuk Canadiens
Alex Galchenyuk had a very impressive showing with Montreal during the ’12-’13 season, and the young forward will undoubtedly keep maturing as one of the Canadiens’ brightest young players. (Jean-Yves Ahern-USA TODAY Sports)

The Canadiens proceeded to have one of their best seasons in years. Go figure.

Scorching the Earth from the start of the season through late March, the Habs would wind up as one of the best teams in the conference, finishing second behind only the juggernaut Pittsburgh Penguins and besting their rivals from Boston for the division crown.

How did they do it? Well, a few key contributors can probably raise their hands. First, Andrei Markov stayed healthy for the first time in ever. He played in every game, put up 30 points in 48 games and was one of the teams’ best players. It has been easy to forget the kind of player he is the last few years because of his injury woes but he came back with a vengeance last year.

Speaking of the defense, it also helps that PK Subban made The Leap. Subban, with 38 points in 42 games, lived up to his massive potential and turned in his finest season yet. His reward? Oh, just the Norris Trophy as the league’s best defenseman.

The Canadiens also got a great effort from the forwards. Max Pacioretty led the way with 39 points, Tomas Plekanec and Lars Eller both had strong showings, and the team got a huge boost from rookies Galchenyuk and Brendan Gallagher.

The team also got a huge boost from the underrated Brandon Prust who, with his 110 PIMs, helped give the team a rough edge and made them tougher to play against.

Unfortunately for them, the playoffs were a different story. Goaltender Carey Price struggled immensely before bowing out due to injury and the Habs were just no match for the young, speedy Ottawa Senators who were buoyed by the momentum of a returning Erik Karlsson from injury.

What do they look like for this year?

The Habs look much the same heading into this season, though they did add Quebec native Danny Briere to the mix via free agency. Bought out by the Flyers, Briere could be a big addition to the team in terms of leadership and playoff success. Briere is a strong playoff performer and could show his worth in the post season.

The core for the Canadiens is back, a year older, and looking to get even better. It will be hard for Subban to top his Norris Trophy season of a year ago but he has the talent and the confidence to be one of the best in the game again and he’ll have Markov there to take the pressure off. Pacioretty, Galchenyuk, and Gallagher will look to continue the charge offensively and could make the Habs even more dangerous than last year if the latter two continue to develop.

PK Subban Norris Trophy
Former 2nd round draft pick PK Subban with the Norris Trophy; the Montreal Canadiens hope to strike gold again in the 2013 NHL Draft. (Rob Grabowski-USA TODAY Sports)

It will be incredibly difficult to play the Canadiens again this year. They have a fantastic blend of skill, speed, and grit. Guys like Pacioretty, Briere, Gionta, and Galchenyuk can beat you with their speed and skill while mashers like Prust, Travis Moen, George Parros, and Douglas Murray roam the ice protecting their backs.

Playing the role of wild card will be Price. He has the skill to be an elite netminder and has flashed that potential on more than a few occasions. His struggles against the Senators in the playoffs raised questions and his injury didn’t help to dispel them. Price will need to come back strong if the Habs want to be contenders.

2013/14 Meetings w/Buffalo

11/27 @ Buffalo
12/7 @ Montreal
3/16 @ Buffalo
3/25 @ Montreal
4/12 @ Boston

Where do the Sabres stand?

The Sabres actually won the season series against the Canadiens last year, going 3-2 with a pair of wins coming in extra time. The two losses were blowouts; one coming in Montreal and the other at home in the HSBC Arena.

It was generally the Thomas Vanek show against the Habs, with Vanek scoring four times in the five games against the Canadiens. It also helped the Sabres that their goaltending against the Canadiens wasn’t quite as bad as the bleu,blanc, et rouge.

After watching the Sabres last year, it’s unclear to me why or how they played both Boston and Montreal – two of the best teams in the conference – so well. Maybe it’s a case of the Sabres playing to the level of their competition. Maybe it’s just a case of them getting up for games against good teams. Either way, it’s a sign that the Sabres, even without Jason Pominville and a pair of veteran defensemen, can play with the best when they’re on their game.

It’ll be interesting to see how the two match up this year as the Habs managed to get bigger and meaner (Parros, Murray) while also adding speed and skill (Briere). Montreal is going to be a team to be reckoned with and the Sabres will have a tall task in matching up with them.

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