After a three game winning streak ended abruptly at the hands of the Winnipeg Jets, the Buffalo Sabres will face off against the Montreal Canadiens two times in the next two nights. The Canadiens sit at the top of the Eastern Conference with a 16-6-1 record. Meanwhile, the Sabres currently are in last place in the East with a 6-14-2 record.
Montreal will travel to Buffalo to begin the home-and-home matches as the Sabres look to bounce back from their recent loss. Buffalo will need to put forth a nearly flawless effort to secure at least one win against Montreal. On a positive note, the Sabres are doing slightly better than last season through twenty-two games but not by too much.
Last year at this stage of the season, the Sabres had a 5-16-1 record which was good for eleven points. The Sabres didn’t earn their sixth win of the season until game twenty-seven last season. Buffalo already earned their sixth win back on their twenty-first game so the Sabres’ current record is slightly improved in comparison to last season.
The next two games against the Montreal Canadiens will be a stern challenge for the Sabres. The Canadiens have gone 8-2-0 in their last ten games. Montreal has more wins at home (nine) than on the road (seven) but their losses have been split evenly with three on the road and three at home. Buffalo will have to work on minimizing their mistakes to have a chance at winning during the home-and-home matchup against the Eastern Conference’s top team.
[See Also: Top Five Buffalo Sabres Goals Through Twenty Games]
Chronicling the Canadiens’ Success
Carey Price and Dustin Tokarski have provided solid goaltending for the Canadiens this season. Price has led the charge for Montreal between the pipes where he has appeared in eighteen of the club’s twenty-three games. During that span, Price has faced five hundred forty-one shots against which is the fourth highest total faced by a goaltender in the NHL so far this season. Price has turned in many solid performances and has earned a .922 save percentage along with a 2.35 GAA. He has been rewarded for his efforts with thirteen of Montreal’s sixteen wins this season. Tokarski has three wins, a 2.37 GAA and a .919 save percentage.
An interesting statistic of Montreal’s season thus far is their goal differential. The Canadiens scored sixty-one goals but have allowed fifty-seven which results in a +4 goal differential. Despite winning sixteen of their twenty-three games played, the Habs have not scored too many more goals than they’ve allowed. By comparison the Pittsburgh Penguins, who are the Eastern Conference’s second place team, have fifteen wins and a +27 goal differential.
#Habs Pacioretty has 34 even strength goals since this date last year, most in the NHL.
— The Hockey Guys (@TheHockeyGuys) November 21, 2014
Forward Max Pacioretty leads Montreal’s offense with ten goals and eighteen points. Meanwhile, forward Tomas Plekanec has eight goals and seventeen points, forward Alex Galchenyuk has five goals and fourteen points, and defenseman P.K. Subban has five goals and thirteen points on the season. THW’s Ryan Szporer analyzed the Montreal Canadiens’ season through the club’s opening twenty-two games and his post can be found here.
Keys to the Matches
Despite Montreal’s success, the club does have a few weaknesses that the Sabres will need to exploit in order to earn a victory or two. These vulnerabilities are the keys to the home-and-home matchups and the Sabres’ success hinges on their ability to capitalize on their opportunities. Granted, the Sabres have struggled in many similar facets of their game and to much a greater degree than the Canadiens have this season. Nevertheless, each game is a new opportunity to improve and to win so here are some keys to the Sabres’ home-and-home matchups against the Montreal Canadiens.
In terms of fancy stats, Montreal has a Fenwick For Percentage of 49.3% which is the twentieth best in the NHL. Fenwick is correlated with scoring chances. The Canadiens’ offense is surprisingly ranked in the lower third of the league in this statistic despite Montreal’s high position in the standings.
Consequently, a key to success against Montreal for the Sabres will be to minimize the Canadiens’ scoring chances. Montreal’s 2.48 average goals scored per game is twenty-first best in the NHL. Limiting the Canadiens’ scoring chances will be a tall order for the Sabres who lead the NHL in shots allowed per game with an average of 36.4.
Brian Gionta leads the #Sabres with most career points against Montreal all-time: 18 points (11G, 7A) in 24 games. #MTLvsBUF
— Buffalo Sabres (@BuffaloSabres) November 6, 2014
With an offense that ranks in the bottom third of the NHL in Fenwick and in average goals per game, it isn’t too surprising that Montreal’s power play is also in the lower third of the NHL. The Canadiens currently have the twenty-fifth best power play in the NHL converting on just 12.7% of their opportunities. Montreal has scored forty-four of it’s fifty-seven goals in five-on-five situations.
Buffalo has been short-handed eighty-two times this season which is the fifth-most in the NHL. The Sabres’ knack for penalties may in fact work to their advantage against Montreal. While there is a chance that Montreal may find it’s scoring touch with the man advantage against the Sabres, especially since the Sabres have the twenty-fifth best penalty kill rate in the NHL, the fact that Montreal has struggled on the power play could help Buffalo.
[See Also: Is Goaltending the Buffalo Sabres’ Most Consistent Position?]
Montreal will present many challenges for Buffalo during the upcoming home-and-home matches to close out November in Sabreland. While goal scoring seemed to be improving during the Sabres’ three game winning streak, it took a step back against Winnipeg earlier this week. Buffalo’s average of just 1.59 goals per game is the worst in the NHL. The Sabres will definitely need to bring their ‘A’ game offensively to find a way to beat the Canadiens.
Earlier this month, the Sabres lost their first game against the Canadiens by a 2-1 score in the shootout. Drew Stafford notched Buffalo’s lone goal in the game while the Sabres tied Montreal in shots at thirty-two. The Sabres put forth a decent effort in this game and managed to score a rare goal on the power play. If Buffalo can bring a similar effort or better to each of their upcoming games against the Canadiens then they have a decent chance of winning. However, if they are unable to match Montreal’s intensity then it could be a long couple of nights in Sabreland.