MONTREAL – The backdrop to the Buffalo Sabres’ latest nailbiter was the return of Brian Gionta and Josh Gorges to the Bell Centre. The 4-3 win over the Montreal Canadiens was secured as Brian Flynn scored the tying goal with 5:56 left in regulation and the only goal of a five-round shootout.
But this one was all about goaltender Jhonas Enroth. Since coming up to the NHL for good in 2011, he’s never looked better.
Buffalo’s red-hot acrobat made 41 saves in regulation and overtime and then stoned the Habs five times in the shootout. The performance allowed the Sabres to sweep the home-and-home series and win for the fifth time in six games.
After Alex Galchenyuk grazed the post on Montreal’s first attempt of the shootout, the Habs had no chance. Enroth speared David Desharnais’ deke with his glove, then stopped P.A. Parenteau, Lars Eller and Tomas Plekanec.
“I played them good except the first one. Hit the post,” Enroth said. “The other ones I had pretty much under control. I felt pretty good, kind of like I knew what they were going to do.”
The Sabres are scoring at a much faster rate than earlier in the season, but goaltending is the reason for their solid play of late. Sweeping a Montreal team that started the weekend atop the NHL’s overall standings easily rates as the team’s best accomplishment to date this season.
Enroth survived a grueling stretch of three games in four nights and is 4-1 in his last five games with a 1.69 goals-against average, a .952 save percentage and a likely NHL Star of the Week award in the offing.
The Sabres, meanwhile, finished November 6-6-1 and are 7-7-2 overall after their 1-7 start. This was a game they would have certainly lost in October.
After taking a 2-1 lead on Chris Stewart’s breakaway goal at 5:57 of the third, Buffalo fell behind as Lars Eller banked one off Nikita Zadorov past Enroth at 7:31 and Max Pacioretty potted a Dale Weise rebound at 13:15 to make it 3-2.
The usual raucous, chanting Bell Centre sellout crowd of 21,273 was in an uproar and everything seemed like it was going against the Sabres. But Gionta, playing his 800th career game and his first as a visitor here since leaving the Habs to sign with the Sabres over the summer, fed Flynn from behind the net to tie the game 49 seconds after the Pacioretty goal.
“We found a way,” said coach Ted Nolan. “The first 10 games or so we’re down one goal, get down two and the game was over. We didn’t believe we could fight back and win them. For the last couple weeks or so, this group is really starting to come together. They’re working and believing that no matter what the score is, they have a chance.”
Enroth made sure the Sabres survived with four saves in overtime and 17 stops during the Habs’ 19-shot third period. His best save came in the second period when he slid to his right to deny an Andrei Markov one-timer.
“I just saw a guy over there with an open net and just tried to get as many pads and blockers and sticks over there as I could,” he said.
The Sabres blocked 30 shots in the game and Enroth was there when pucks got through. In the shootout, Gionta could have written a terrific script, but Dustin Tokarski robbed him with a left pad save in round four. It was up to Flynn to win it in round five with a nifty deke.
“You try to have one go-to move you work on in practice in case Teddy throws me in there and that was mine,” Flynn said. “I kind of slow down, fake a shot, pull it hard to the backhand and back to the forehand. Fortunately, he kind of bit when I went to the backhand.
“Jhonas was great tonight, made a lot of big saves, timely stops. If he saves five in a row in the shootout, you need to win him that game.”
In the return to Montreal of Gionta and injured defenseman Gorges, the Habs did not do any sort of tribute video to either player. Instead, during the Star-Spangled Banner, they projected both players on to their giant jumbotron above center ice. The crowd roared for both and Gorges, whose knee injury kept him out of the lineup, smiled and waved when he noticed the gesture.
“It’s a great place to play,” Gionta said. “Walking out of that tunnel night in and night out, you get a feel how special the fans are.”
Gionta took a huge hit late in Friday’s 2-1 win in First Niagara Center from Habs defenseman and former teammate Alexei Emelin. The play was ruled a hit to the head but Emelin was not suspended and played Saturday. He was given a CBA-maximum fine that in this case worked out to $11,021.51.