Jason Pominville had no idea which goalie he and the Buffalo Sabres would face until around 11 a.m. Thursday, when a reporter informed him that Antti Niemi was announced Wednesday as Montreal’s starter.
“I didn’t even know!” the veteran Sabres right wing said Thursday at KeyBank Center. “I’m sure we’ll talk about this in our meetings. (Carey) Price plays the puck pretty well and I’m not really sure how he plays it, but I know he’s been playing really well since he’s been with Montreal.”
Niemi started in place of Carey Price, who got the night off. 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).
Niemi is 2-0 in two games with the Canadiens, with a 2.88 goals-against average and a .893 saves percentage. Niemi stopped the first five shots he faced, as the Sabres were unable to generate early second-chance scoring opportunities. At one point, nearly six minutes lapsed between the Sabres' fifth and sixth shots: Casey Mittelstadt's wrist shot from the right circle at 17:31, and a nearly identical shot by Kyle Okposo's at 11:32.
The Sabres started to buzz around the Canadiens goal late in the first. Niemi went to his right to deflect a wrist shot by Zach Bogosian with his blocker with about four minutes left, then smothered Zemgus Girgensons' deflection two minutes later. Niemi also stopped Vladimir Sobotka's point-blank from the slot in the final two minutes.
“I don’t really study goalies that much, but I think, to me, he’s a good goalie and he’s been around a long time,” Sabres center Jeff Skinner said. “It’s going to be a good challenge for us, to try and read him.”
Pominville shared one vital detail about Niemi: “He’s won a Cup.”
(Niemi was the No. 1 goalie when the Chicago Blackhawks won the Stanley Cup in 2010.) Niemi also registered his last shutout against Buffalo on March 23, a 3-0 win in which Niemi made 35 saves.
Niemi entered Thursday 3-3-1 in eight career games against the Sabres, with a 2.18 goals-against average and a .919 saves percentage.
Hockey players live in a bit of a bubble during the season, so it’s not much of a surprise that Pominville was unaware of Montreal’s lineup change. The Sabres, Pominville said, made a quick study of Niemi prior to Thursday's game, but didn't go about game-day preparations any differently.
As an aside: The Sabres announced Carter Hutton as their starting goalie against Montreal on Twitter, about 24 hours after the Canadiens’ announcement of Niemi as their starter.
Center Tage Thompson was scratched for a third straight game. Thompson is scoreless in seven games and is minus-1 with seven shots on goal, averaging 11:44 in ice time, but Sabres coach Phil Housley wouldn’t commit to Thompson’s immediate future, whether it’s with the Sabres or with the Rochester Americans of the AHL.
“We’ll have more of an evaluation of what his situation’s going to be like tomorrow,” Housley said. “But I just think giving him a different perspective … and we need him to be playing games and getting some ice time. But right now, where we’re at as team and winning two games, we’re not going to change our lineup. There’s some good cohesiveness within our group but we know he’s a big part of our team and our future. He will get an opportunity to get back in the lineup shortly.”
Left wing Remi Elie and defenseman Nathan Beaulieu were also scratched.
Pominville earned his 700th point Saturday, as he scored a goal and two assists in a 5-1 win at Los Angeles. Less than a week later, he remained sheepish about the accomplishment.
“It means I’ve been around for a while,” Pominville said, grinning. “No, it means a lot. You grew up wanting to play in the NHL and play a game. I’ve been fortunate to play one, and then play two, three, four and now I’m closing in on some pretty cool milestones. That’s one of them that I’m proud of.”
Garrett Rank officiated Thursday’s game. Rank qualified for the 2018 U.S. Open and finished 18-over in the first two days at Shinnecock Hills in Southampton, N.Y., and did not make the cut.
Rank is an Elmira resident who has officiated in the NHL since 2014, and is in his third full season as a referee.