Saku Koivu’s 20th goal of the season was the winner as the Canadiens downed the Buffalo Sabres 4-3 on Saturday night.
The victory kept Montreal (41-32-6) in eighth place, one point behind the New York Rangers and one ahead of the ninth-place Toronto Maple Leafs, who both hold a game in hand on the Canadiens.
“It was a big win,” said Montreal veteran Mike Johnson. “We knew all the teams around us were playing and we didn’t want to fall out of that eighth spot.”
It also prevented the Sabres (50-21-7) from clinching first in both the Northeast Division and the conference. They remain one point ahead of Detroit for first overall in the league standings.
“Its just disappointing to lose,” said Sabres forward Dainius Zubrus, whose third-period goal pulled Buffalo to within one with 12:45 remaining. “We had a chance to clinch, but we knew we were playing against a desperate team that needs the points to stay in the playoff race.”
The win, coming off a 5-2 setback Friday night in Ottawa, was Montreal’s eight in 10 games. The Sabres lost in regulation time for only the second time in 10 matches.
The teams finished the season with a split of their eight head-to-head matchups.
Koivu came off the bench to intercept Ales Kotalik’s pass and go in alone to beat Ty Conklin just 3:22 into the third for a 4-2 Montreal lead.
But Zubrus made it 4-3 when he jumped on a loose puck in the Montreal crease at 7:15 to set up a tense ending to an otherwise quiet match.
Michael Ryder, Radek Bonk and Maxim Lapierre also scored for the Canadiens.
Daniel Briere and Thomas Vanek had the other Buffalo goals.
The Sabres, 6-4 winners over the New York Islanders on Friday night, made the surprise move of resting No. 1 goalie Ryan Miller and giving Conklin only his second start since joining the team Feb. 27 from Columbus.
He stopped only 15 of 19 shots, but didn’t get a lot of help from a Sabres team that was not its usual swarming self until late in the game.
“He’s no slug,” Johnson said of Conklin. “Miller and Conklin are both good.
“It was surprising,” Canadiens coach Guy Carbonneau said of Conklin. “It’s like playing New Jersey and not seeing Martin Brodeur in goal.
“Miller played nearly all the games since (former backup) Martin Biron left. But our gameplan didn’t change because Conklin was in goal.”
The Sabres fired 25 shots at Jaroslav Halak.
A turnover on a Montreal breakout allowed Briere to go in on the left side and beat Halak to the top corner 9:20 into the game.
Montreal got it back when Francis Bouillon’s weak point shot was deflected between Conklin’s pads by Ryder at 15:33.
The Canadiens opened a 3-1 lead in the second when Bonk came off the bench to move in and bang his own rebound past Conklin at 6:39 and Lapierre shovelled Alex Kovalev’s pass in from the edge of the crease at 8:16.
But Vanek tipped his 39th of the season out of the air past Halak with 1:01 left in the period.
The Sabres got a puck into the Montreal net with 4:31 remaining the game, but it was waved off and video review showed Drew Stafford kicked in the puck.
Koivu and linemate Ryder were used sparingly in the third period and Koivu went to the clinic after the game, but Carbonneau said he was not injured. And he wasn’t benched after going minus-4 in Ottawa.
“It was not a message,” said Carbonneau. “He contributed to the win, that’s what counts.
“Koivu and Ryder each had a goal. We just decided to go with three lines.”
Koivu needs one more goal and two more points to match his career highs of 21 goals and 71 points in 2002-’03.
The Canadiens are at home to face Boston on Tuesday and finish the season against the Rangers in New York on Thursday and in Toronto on Saturday night.
Buffalo has four games left, starting Tuesday in Pittsburgh. Other games are against Boston, Washington and Philadelphia.
Notes – Montreal’s Steve Begin played his 300th NHL game . . . The Sabres scratched Clarke MacArthur and Andrew Peters while Paul Gaustad (ankle) and Maxim Afinogenov (wrist) remain sidelined . . . Montreal scratches were Sergei Samsonov, Josh Gorges and Garth Murray . . . Alexander Perezhogin missed his 13th game with a concussion.