Jason Pominville is well aware that his role with the Buffalo Sabres could change in a few days, a few games, or in a few weeks.
Yet in the Sabres’ 4-3 win against the Montreal Canadiens on Thursday at KeyBank Center, Pominville’s current role is evident: Forge a presence in front of the net, and stymie the opposing goalie.
Pominville scored two goals, then screened Canadiens goalie Antti Niemi in the final 90 seconds to set up Kyle Okposo’s game-winning goal with 1:01 left in regulation.
“Great shot, great movement,” Pominville said. “Great puck retrieval. He shot, I think twice. I was able to get a rebound on the first one and then Skinny (Jeff Skinner) retrieved the puck and moved it up, and they set up the same shot, and Kyle was able to pick a corner.
“I’m just trying to play at the goal, hopefully it doesn’t hit me, and that one went in.”
Playing on the Sabres’ top line with left wing Jeff Skinner and center Jack Eichel, Pominville’s grit in front of the goal crease offsets the duo’s offensive dexterity.
There’s no way to know if this will become the right wing’s permanent role, a la Patric Hornqvist in Pittsburgh or Wayne Simmonds in Philadelphia, but Pominville is embracing his current obligation of being a human shield in front of an opposing goalie.
“That’s what I’ve been asked to do and I’ve taken a lot of pride in it, so it’s nice to be out there, for sure,” Pominville said.
Pominville’s play at the net set the tempo for the Sabres, who started sluggishly despite outshooting the Canadiens 20-11 by the halfway point of the game. The Sabres weren’t aggressive in front of Niemi (38 saves), and fell behind 1-0 on Max Domi’s goal at 1:17 of the first.
“The first period, we were a little hesitant in our game, but it wasn’t terrible,” Okposo said. “Then, I thought we got going and it felt like we were in control.”
In stepped Pominville. The 15-year NHL veteran gave the Sabres a bona fide scoring chance about two minutes into the second when he had a chance to tie the game in front of the Montreal goal.
He couldn’t poke the puck past Niemi on a deflection of Skinner’s initial shot. But Pominville tied the game at 1-1 at 11:22, when he tipped Skinner’s pass from the left circle behind Niemi’s left foot.
Less than two minutes after Montreal right wing Joel Armia tied the game on a slick wraparound that caught Sabres goalie Carter Hutton (19 saves) well out of position as he attempted to cross the crease, Pominville tied the game seconds after he tumbled to the ice and took out Niemi on the play.
Pominville bounced up and got in position in time to tie the game at 2-2 on a pass from Skinner – a goal that tied the game after officials reviewed the play for goaltender interference.
Sam Reinhart took a cue from Pominville and continued the Sabres’ presence at the front of the net. Reinhart scored his first goal at 13:07 of the third to tie the game at 3-3, as he redirected a pass from Jake McCabe.
“They’re good at defending and they’re good at clearing the net,” Pominville said of the Canadiens. “But we found a way to get in there and finally got rewarded for it.”
The Canadiens, however, unraveled with 1:19 left when Joel Armia tripped Conor Sheary in the neutral zone.
Pominville again put himself deep in the Sabres’ offensive zone on Buffalo’s final power play, and created enough of a screen in front of Niemi to create space for Okposo’s game-winning goal.
“He screened the goalie, and he (Niemi) didn’t see it,” Okposo said. “I felt like I had the whole side of the net and you can’t stop what you can’t see.”
Not with Pominville standing directly in front of you.