A terrific first period and a solid third Monday night still produced no rewards for the Buffalo Sabres.
Montreal goaltender Cristobal Huet stoned them with 29 saves as the Canadiens handed Buffalo its third straight defeat with a 2-0 blanking before the usual Bell Centre sellout crowd of 21,273.
Tomas Plekanec's backhander on the tail end of a two-on-one break at 13:04 of the second period was the only goal Montreal needed. Bryan Smolinski's empty-netter with 21.8 seconds left put the game away.
Buffalo had a 29-19 edge in shots, including 16-8 in the first period and 9-2 in the third, but endured its second shutout loss of the season -- after not getting blanked one time in the regular season last year.
"There was a lot we liked about the game but we didn't win," said coach Lindy Ruff. "You can find different ways to lose. The goaltender on their side played probably as good a game as we've seen.
"Sometimes before you start to gain, you're going to feel more pain. I thought tonight's game was a great step in the right direction."
It was a bad night on the scoreboard and the injury front. The Sabres lost center Adam Mair in the second period to a twisted ankle and Ruff said he will probably be out "for a while." Center Tim Connolly took a hard check in the final minute and Ruff said he had a sore back.
The game was the opener of nine straight against Northeast Division clubs. It also began a rugged stretch of four games in six nights. The team will host the Boston Bruins on Wednesday night.
Especially with all these division games in their immediate future, the Sabres can't spend too much time categorizing losses as good or bad. They all count the same.
Buffalo fell to 5-7-1 and remained last in the Northeast, 13 points behind division-leading Ottawa. Montreal (8-3-3) pulled within five points of the Senators.
This game, however, was a far cry from the poor performance the Sabres put out in Friday's 4-2 loss to Florida in HSBC Arena. The defensive zone coverage was vastly improved as the puck came out of the Buffalo end with crispness most of the night. The forechecking was solid as well.
Many of Huet's saves were from point-blank range, although he was able to get a good look at the vast majority of the shots. It was his first shutout since Nov. 28, 2006.
"Huet was very good," said Buffalo goaltender Ryan Miller. "We got inside a few times and he came up big. You can't be too mad about those games. It just comes at a time when we're looking for something to go right. Hopefully the guys wont take this too hard."
The Sabres were all over the Canadiens in the third period, holding Montreal without a shot for the first 12 minutes. Huet, meanwhile, made several brilliant saves with Daniel Paille and Thomas Vanek the victims on his two best stops.
"Right now we're kind of a beaten-down team," said defenseman Brian Campbell. "We had our chances and just can't get it going here. If we keep going with that effort, we think we'll be all right most nights."
Campbell took this one hard because he was burned on the first goal. He was caught up ice trying to create an odd-man rush for Buffalo and nearly caught up to Plekanec but fell just short as the Montreal center took a pass from Andrei Kostitsyn and slid a backhander under a sprawling Miller.
"Sometimes, it's a little bit of a gamble," Campbell admitted. "You get a chance one way and they come down and put it in your net. I've got to keep doing those plays and getting involved. That's my game and that's what they want."
Even at that point, it was hard to imagine one goal was going to be enough for the Canadiens to live on. Turns out that's what happened.
"It's going to get better," Miller said. "We judge ourselves on how we're playing. We need to get some wins but even when you play good hockey, you're not going to win every night. Tonight was a step forward."
Canadiens 2, Sabres 0