The Buffalo Sabres surprised everyone else, but they didn’t surprise themselves on a weekend visit to southern California, in which they put together back-to-back wins for the second time this season.
Everything the Sabres did in the last two games, they need to do the same and more Thursday, when they host the upstart Montreal Canadiens at 7 p.m. at KeyBank Center.
With reshuffled lines and new defensive pairings Saturday and Sunday, the Sabres peppered Los Angeles goalie Jonathan Quick and Anaheim goalie Ryan Miller with 71 shots, and created second-chance opportunities. Left winger Jeff Skinner finally broke out of a drought, scoring four goals in two games.
And when the Sabres faced a 2-0 deficit late in the second period Sunday at Anaheim, they didn’t wilt. And they know they can’t make a habit of spotting a team an early lead.
Buffalo (5-4-0) plays its first home game since Oct. 11, after a five-game, nine-day road trip in the Western Conference, and host the Canadiens, the surprise team of the NHL so far.
“It’s important for us to start fast, and not to start when we’re already down a couple goals,” Sabres captain Jack Eichel said. “It’s good to have a good first period, and get out, and try to get a lead and score first. They (Montreal) play a pretty fast game. We’ve got to be ready to skate. We’ve got to be ready to get to the net.”
Many know the Canadiens as one of the NHL’s historically successful franchises, but they’ve hit some hard times in the last few years.
Montreal finished 14th in the 16-team Eastern Conference in 2017-2018, and missed the playoffs for the second time in the last three seasons. Their only postseason action was in April, when the Canadiens got the third spot in the NHL draft lottery, which they used to select Finnish center Jesperi Kotkaniemi as their first-round pick.
Montreal has roared to a 5-1-2 start this fall, and the Canadiens are one of three teams who lead the Atlantic Division with 12 points. The Canadiens are also one of three teams atop the Eastern Conference less than a month into the season.
“They’re playing as a team,” Sabres coach Phil Housley said. “They have good balance throughout their lineup, they have four lines that can go and they’re a very fast team. Their transition is all about speed and stretching the ice.
“The rush game and their transition game with the speed up front is very deadly.”
But the Sabres can’t solely focus on their opponents. They have to build on what they’ve been doing right in the last two weeks, and need an efficient start against the Canadiens.
“We want to make sure we establish our home ice early,” Sabres left wing Conor Sheary said. “We want to be a fast team. We want to play quick, we want to get on the forecheck. We’re a hardworking team and when we compete, we’re tough to play against. When we sit back and let teams play in our end, that’s when we’re not playing our best.”
The Sabres will get some reprieve, as the Canadiens announced Wednesday - as the Sabres wrapped up media availability Wednesday at KeyBank Center - that Antti Niemi will start Thursday in Buffalo, in place of Carey Price.
Niemi is 2-0 in two games, with a 2.88 goals-against average and a .893 saves percentage.
Price earned his 289th win Tuesday against Calgary, tying Patrick Roy for second all-time among Canadiens goalies for wins. Jacques Plante leads the Canadiens all-time in wins (314).