BUFFALO, N.Y. – Goalie Ryan Miller was perfect. Newcomer Cody Hodgson finally got on the board with Buffalo. And the Sabres have inched themselves to within a sniff of playoff contention.
Before anyone got too excited over the Sabres’ 3-0 win over the Montreal Canadiens on Wednesday night, Miller provided a few cautionary words of perspective.
“I’m not going to say I’m not happy, but it is a stop along the way,” Miller said. “I’m trying not to be satisfied. We’ve got a lot of hockey left to play.”
With 2 1/2 weeks left in the season, Miller is at least ensuring that the Sabres’ final eight games will remain meaningful now that they’ve caught eighth-place Washington in the Eastern Conference standings.
Miller made 34 saves for his career-high sixth shutout of the season, and 28th of his career. Hodgson scored twice for his first two goals in 12 games since the rookie centre was acquired in a trade with Vancouver. And the Sabres (35-29-10) improved to 16-5-5 in their past 26 games.
“We’ve put together a good run to be where we’re at,” coach Lindy Ruff said. “There’s a tough schedule ahead of us, but it’s rewarding to get us as close as we’ve gotten right now.”
With nine games left, the Capitals are still eighth because they have played one fewer game, and lead Buffalo 35-27 in the first tiebreaker: non-shootout victories.
The Sabres’ climb has still been remarkable. They were in 14th place as recently as Feb. 17, and they haven’t had a share of eighth place since Dec. 19. Their late-season push this year, is suddenly resembling their remarkable run last year, when Buffalo closed the season going 16-4-4 to clinch a playoff spot on the final weekend of the season.
“We knew everybody was counting us out, and we just wanted to go out and prove to ourselves that we knew we had a better team in here,” centre Derek Roy said. “It shows the character of the boys.”
Roy had two assists and Jason Pominville also scored for Buffalo. Miller has keyed the surge, having allowed 29 goals in going 11-1-3 in his past 15 games.
The Canadiens (28-33-13), by comparison, are playing out the string of a disappointing season. They blew a chance to move out of last place in the East, while losing in regulation for the first time in seven games (3-1-3).
“This is just one game that I thought was overall not too bad,” Canadiens coach Randy Cunneyworth said. “It was not all that negative. I thought we did a lot of positive things. But it wasn’t sustained enough.”
Rested after a three-day break, the Canadiens dominated much of the first period, but came away trailing 1-0 after Hodgson opened the scoring 6:15 in by capping a great individual effort.
The rookie centre burst up the right side, cut between Montreal’s Aaron Palushaj and Alexei Emelin, and got off a weak shot, which Carey Price easily sticked aside. Hodgson kept going, chasing down the puck behind the net and wrapping it in off Price, who failed to hug the left post.
Pominville scored to convert a scramble 2:31 into the second, and Hodgson sealed the win by one-timing in Roy’s perfect feed through the slot for a power-play goal with 7:15 left.
After failing to get a point in his first 10 games with Buffalo, Hodgson has two goals and two assists in his past two.
With little to lose, Cunneyworth pulled goalie Price for an extra attacker with four minutes left. The plan lasted 42 seconds, until Montreal’s Erik Cole was penalized for goalie interference.
Sensing the shutout, the sold-out house began chanting “USA! USA!” eight minutes into third period in honour of Miller, who two years ago was the Vancouver Winter Games hockey tournament MVP when he led the United States to a silver medal.
Miller was the busiest in the first period, when he made 15 saves. That included getting his pad out to stop Tomas Plekanec’s shot that sneaked in through a crowd from the right boards five minutes in. A few minutes later, Miller was also sharp by moving to his left to prevent Louis Leblanc’s wraparound attempt.
His best save came 8:30 into the second period, when Miller scrambled to his right to stop Cole’s shot from the circle.
Notes: The Sabres went 5-0-1 against Montreal this season, and improved to 8-0-1 in the past nine meetings against their Northeast Division rival. … Sabres RW Patrick Kaleta did not play due to an upper body injury. He was replaced by minor-league call up Travis Turnbull, who made his NHL debut. … Canadiens C Scott Gomez missed his fourth straight game since sustaining a concussion as a result of being blindsided by Sabres D Tyler Myers in Buffalo’s 3-2 overtime win on March 12. Myers returned Wednesday after serving a three-game suspension for the hit, which the NHL deemed illegal.