The puck reached Marcus Johansson before Montreal Canadiens goalie Keith Kinkaid could attempt to make a save. Johansson, the Buffalo Sabres' top offseason acquisition, one-timed the pass from Colin Miller into the net at 1:30 into overtime to secure a 5-4 win Wednesday night.
Johansson was congratulated by his teammates, the crowd of 15,383 inside KeyBank Center celebrated the Sabres' first two-game home winning streak to start the season since 2008-09 and many of the Canadiens left the ice with an expression of frustration.
The Sabres scored on two of their five power plays and outshot Montreal, 39-27, to respond from their first bout with adversity under coach Ralph Krueger. However, the uneven performance illustrated how his players are still grappling with new systems.
Buffalo, now 3-0-1, struggled in the defensive zone, particularly with puck management, and had two goals against on special teams, including one shorthanded. Though the Sabres were satisfied with having earned points in each of their first four games of the season, they are aware corrections will need to be made prior to a game Friday night against the Florida Panthers.
"First and foremost, we’re happy to come out of a game with a win where we definitely didn’t have the structure defensively we want to have, but we all know we’re in the beginning of a hard, long season of growth and learning," Krueger said during his postgame news conference. "The language is right on the bench and in the room. You have to give a compliment to the way Montreal plays. They come hard. ... They cycle extremely quick and battle hard and with a lot of grit for pucks and retrievals. It was a high-level of offense coming at us all night and we have to learn to play against that. Again, if we can learn off a win we’ll take that anytime."
There were a number of encouraging signs for the Sabres. Goalie Carter Hutton stood tall during a siege late in the third period and stopped 23 of the 27 shots he faced. Jack Eichel had two goals with two assists, giving him seven points through four games. Rasmus Dahlin also has seven points this season after finishing with two assists against Montreal (1-0-2).
Johansson made an impressive pass between two defenders to find Jeff Skinner, who pushed the lead to 4-2 with a backhanded shot at 47 seconds into the third period. Additionally, the Sabres' checking line – Zemgus Girgensons, Johan Larsson and Kyle Okposo – was a bright spot during 5-on-5 play.
The win would not have been possible without the Sabres' power play, though. Buffalo was hemmed in its own zone for the first four minutes of the game, until Canadiens winger Tomas Tatar was penalized for interference. Sixty-five seconds later, Victor Olofsson scored his fourth goal of the season off a cross-ice pass from Eichel for a 1-0 lead.
"I think we’re just moving pucks quickly," Eichel said of the power play. "Just trying to put the opposition on their heels. I think we’re doing a good job retrieving pucks as well. Not letting them get set up and I thought we’ve kind of dictated it. It’s been good to see. Power play and special teams are so important in this league. It can be the difference between winning and losing a lot of nights."
Eichel then tied the score, 2-2, at 4:46 into the second period, when his shot went off the far post and into the net. Eichel, the Sabres' 22-year-old captain, added the go-ahead goal less than 10 minutes later by stickhandling around Tatar in the neutral zone. While facing a 1-on-3 in the offensive zone, including one forward pressuring from his left, Eichel unleashed a shot that went between Kinkaid's legs.
Johansson's overtime winner occurred only five seconds after the Canadiens' penalty expired. The Sabres had 14 power-play shots and are 8-for-15 on the man-advantage through four games. During his three seasons in Edmonton, including two as an assistant coach, Krueger guided the Oilers' power play from a 27th-place finish in 2010-11 (14.5 percent) to third in 2011-12 (20.6 percent) and seventh (20.1 percent) in 2012-13.
In addition to using Skinner and Sam Reinhart in front of the net, Krueger is having his top unit open up shooting lanes with puck movement. They are also retrieving loose pucks following an errant pass or blocked shot.
"More than anything just all the different options that are there," Krueger said of his power play. "It’s difficult to defend against. We’re in a league of pre-scouting and analysis to the depths of everything somebody does, but on that power play you have no idea what’s going to come at you and they’re really good at not being stuck in a tunnel somewhere. Even though Victor may seem like a threat all the time, we have threats at all those other four positions. There’s a lot of movements and a lot of exchanges going on."
The Sabres struggled at 5-on-5, though. They turned the puck over during breakout passes or when trying to advance through the neutral zone. There was also more scrambling in the defensive zone than Krueger would like. The first of Montreal's two third-period goals occurred when Jesperi Kotkaniemi was left uncovered in front of the net and one-timed a puck that ricocheted off the end boards.
The Canadiens tied the score, 4-4, with 7:06 remaining in the third period when defenseman Ben Chariot was given enough space to release a wrist shot from the left circle past Hutton, who was screened on the play. Also, the second of former Sabres draft pick Joel Armia's two first-period goals occurred when Rasmus Ristolainen turned the puck over behind Hutton.
Though Krueger expressed disappointment with his players' puck management, he called this a learning opportunity for the Sabres.
"This time of year, I think you always want to pick up points when you can," Skinner said. "At the same time, realizing there’s things that are going to happen, breakdowns are going to happen, and you’re going to have to work through those things. Just keep communicating through them and make sure you’re working hard and competing and sort of trying to make up for those. And then you’ve got to have guys make big plays at big times."