MONTREAL – It seems that whenever Jaroslav Halak’s personal accomplishments are the topic, the Montreal Canadiens goaltender deflects it all to his teammates.
He even did it after posting his second shutout in as many nights, making 29 stops in a 3-0 victory over the Buffalo Sabres on Saturday. That followed a 35-save effort in a 1-0 win in Philadelphia only 24 hours earlier.
“I think everybody played well these last two games,” the 24-year-old said. “It’s great to win the games, and when you get two shutouts it makes it even more special.”
If he were the boastful type, the 24-year-old would have much to crow about as he improved to 26-12-3 for the season. He has outplayed Carey Price, the 2005 first-round draft pick who was expected to be Montreal’s No. 1 goalie this season.
Price has also been strong of late, but hasn’t earned many wins due to lack of offensive support. Under coach Jacques Martin’s win-and-you-start system, Halak has been getting most of the work.
Both goalies will be restricted free agents this summer, and there is debate on whether the team should trade one of them or sign both. Price probably is still the organization’s favourite for his potential, but Halak’s success cannot be overlooked.
Martin said Halak, who got his ninth career shutout and fifth of the season, was even better in blanking the Flyers than against Buffalo.
“His teammates supported him better this time,” said Martin. “He made some good saves, but he didn’t have to work as hard.”
It was the first time a Montreal goalie posted back-to-back shutouts since Cristobal Huet did it to Boston and the New York Rangers on March 9 and March 11, 2006. The team’s last shutouts on consecutive nights were Feb. 4-5, 2006, also by Huet.
Halak, who is 23-2-0 this season when the Canadiens score three or more goals, last gave up a goal to Dainius Zubrus of New Jersey at 15:19 of the second period of a 4-2 loss on March 27.
Ryan O’Byrne scored his first goal of the season, Tom Pyatt got his second and Sergei Kostitsyn also scored as Montreal (39-32-8) beat Buffalo in regulation time for the first time in six meetings this season.
Montreal held onto sixth place in the NHL Eastern Conference, two points ahead of Boston, which has a game in hand. The Canadiens are 3-3-2 in their last eight games, but are 10-4-2 since the Olympic break.
The Sabres (43-25-10), missed a chance to clinch first place over Ottawa in the Northeast Division. Buffalo was coming off a 4-2 loss at Toronto on Thursday, but is still 10-5-1 since the break.
Forward Paul Gaustad said the Sabres can’t let themselves slide into a slump.
“I thought we should have gone harder to the net,” he said. “They played harder than us.
“We’re trying to get better going into the playoffs. We took two steps back and now we have to get back on track.”
Only two weeks ago, the Canadiens led 2-0 in Buffalo and saw the Sabres tie the game in the final two minutes of regulation and then win in a shootout.
In Philadelphia, they also sat back on a lead in the third period and nearly let the Flyers come back. But this time they kept the pressure on, outshooting the Sabres 14-8 in the final 20 minutes. And Kostitsyn’s goal 6:37 into the third gave them a three-goal cushion they would not relinquish.
“What I liked is that we’re learning,” said Martin. “We had more poise and we were more comfortable with the puck.”
The Canadiens had not had a goal from one of their two checking lines in seven games, but they were on the ice for all three goals.
They caught a break to open the scoring at 12:03 when officials missed the puck hitting the netting above the glass in the Sabres’ end, which should have been an immediate whistle. It went back to the point and O’Byrne’s shot went off a defender in front and slid between Ryan Miller’s pads. Miller faced 38 shots.
It was O’Byrne’s first goal since March 3, 2008.
“Hopefully, I’ll get a few more goals now,” he said. “Its been a long time.”
Earlier in the period, O’Byrne had nearly tucked the puck into his own net after an awkward fall, but a video review showed it never entered the net.
Only 2:41 into the second frame, Pyatt picked up his second goal of the season, his first in 17 games, as he lifted the rebound of Maxim Lapierre’s shot over Miller.
Moen beat Jochen Hecht to a puck and fed Kostitsyn for a high shot over Miller. Dominic Moore picked up his second assist of the game on the play.
Notes: Sergei Kostitsyn returned after missing one game with a sore ankle, bumping Ben Maxwell from the Montreal lineup. Jaroslav Spacek missed a second game with a virus. … Tim Connolly and Thomas Vanek, both with lower body injuries, remain sidelined for Buffalo.