The Montreal Canadiens were the toast of the town Tuesday night in Village sur Glace de Roberval, Que., winner of the Kraft Hockeyville 2008 contest.
Tomas Plekanec tallied twice, including a short-handed goal that proved to be the winner, as Montreal beat the Buffalo Sabres 3-2 before a spillover crowd of 1,237 at Sporting Centre Benoît Lévesque.
Many more fans from the town of 11,000 gathered in the parking lot to watch the pre-season clash on a large screen.
"It was special," Plekanec said. "It was nice to see all these people so happy to see us play."
Andrei Kostitsyn contributed a short-handed goal and one assist for the Canadiens, who participated in the inaugural Hockeyville event at Salmon River, N.S., in 2006.
"The atmosphere was great," Canadiens head coach Guy Carbonneau said. "Unless the players on the bench turned around to look behind them, I'm sure they felt like they were in an NHL arena."
"It felt awesome to play my very first NHL game near the town where I played junior," said Canadiens rookie forward David Desharnais, who played in the QMJHL with the nearby Chicoutimi Sagueneens.
"It was the perfect scenario. I think I did pretty well for my first game.
"The players are faster in the NHL and there must be quite a difference in level between pre-season and regular-season games. But it's nice to know I can hold my own at this level."
Derek Roy and Nathan Gerbe had third-period goals for the Sabres.
"He is one of the players we think could play for us down the road," Sabres head coach Lindy Ruff said of Gerbe. "He has got good speed, a good shot.
"Pound for pound, he may be one of our strongest players. In 1-on-1 confrontations, he doesn't go down very often."
Plekanec opens scoring
Plekanec was credited with opening the scoring 10:25 into the first period when he circled behind the net and sent a pass into the crease that banked off the stick of Sabres goaltender Patrick Lalime's stick and into the net.
"Sure, it was only a pre-season game, but we wanted to get ourselves going," Plekanec said. "It doesn't always happen right away."
It remained 1-0 until Kostitsyn plucked a loose puck off the side boards and slipped it between's Lalime's pads for a short-handed, breakaway goal 13:37 into the second period.
Plekanec made it 3-0 on a spectacular effort 4:10 later, faking a slapshot to freeze Sabres rookie defenceman Marc-Andre Gragnani, pulling the puck inside on a forehand deke and firing a wrist shot high to Lalime's glove side for a short-handed goal.
Roy put the Sabres on the board 73 seconds into the third period, beating Canadiens netminder Marc Denis with a backhand on a 2-on-1 break with teammate Drew Stafford.
Gerbe scored on a rising slapshot from the right faceoff circle to cut the deficit to 3-2 with 10:46 remaining, but Denis held Buffalo at bay the rest of the way.
"A game like that is a confidence boost," Denis said. "But let's not get too carried away.
"Yes, there was the result and the performance. But I still need to perfect my technique."
$100,000 in upgrades
Roberval, named the winner of the contest on April 8, received $100,000 from Kraft to upgrade Sporting Centre Benoît Lévesque.
The other finalists were Pilot Mound, Man., Kingsville, Ont., Port aux Basques, N.L., and Wilcox, Sask.
The final voting by the Canadian public was as follows: Roberval (2,198,665); Kingsville (1,491,787); Port aux Basques (959,312); Pilot Mound (558,322) and Wilcox (334,630).
The pre-season game itself will be showcased in CBC's one-hour Hockeyville special on Saturday (7 p.m. local).