With newcomer Mikael Tellqvist on the Buffalo bench, Sabres goalie Patrick Lalime set the stage for a potential fight for playoff time in the absence of injured starter Ryan Miller.
Lalime had his shutout bid halted with 66 seconds left in regulation Wednesday night, but finished with 38 saves in a 5-1 victory over the visiting Montreal Canadiens.
It marked the nine-year NHLer's first win in 14 appearances at HSBC Arena — where he sports a 1-12-1 record and save percentage under .895 — and first since a 4-2 victory at New Jersey on Dec. 13.
Lalime went 0-2-1 in his three previous starts despite allowing only six goals for a 1.97 goals-against average while filling in with Miller sidelined by a sprained ankle.
"It's awesome," Sabres head coach Lindy Ruff said. "We knew we had a good goalie and he's really stepped up for us in Ryan's absence. That's not easy. There's a lot of pressure there."
Tellqvist was acquired prior to Wednesday's 3 p.m. ET trade deadline, with the Phoenix Coyotes receiving a fourth-round NHL draft pick in 2010.
He watched Lalime lead the Sabres to their 32nd win of the season and first in four starts, highlighted by an 18-save performance in the opening 20 minutes.
Lalime robbed Kovalev twice and got help during a scramble in front six minutes in when Matt D'Agostini got two backhanders off from in close.
Leading goal-scorer returns
Buffalo improved its record to 32-25-7 and climbed into ninth spot in the Eastern Conference standings with 71 points. Carolina also has 71 points but has played one more game than the Sabres.
The other good news for Buffalo was the return of leading goal-scorer Thomas Vanek and Maxim Afinogenov from the injured list.
Vanek missed nine games with a fractured jaw, while Afinogenov — who had an assist — suited up for the first time since Jan. 3 after enduring groin and hip problems. Without Vanek, the Sabres managed only 20 goals but busted out against Montreal.
"It was only a matter of time before we got some goals," said Lalime, who snapped an 0-5-1 skid. "It's nice playing with a lead. It makes everybody's job easier."
Forward Derek Roy scored twice after finding the net just three times in his previous 15 outings.
Paul Gaustad added a power-play goal and short-handed marker, with Jaroslav Spacek rounded out the scoring for the Sabres, who are 18-12-2 on home ice.
Tomas Plekanec scored the lone goal for Montreal, which was seeking a fifth consecutive win and saw its shutout streak end at 101 minutes seven seconds.
He buried a Roman Hamrlik rebound for his eighth goal during a nine-game points streak (14 points).
The Canadiens continued to struggle on the road, falling to 2-10-1 in their past 13 games away from the Bell Centre.
"If we can't adjust to play on the road, then we don't deserve to be in the playoffs," head coach Guy Carbonneau said, while lamenting the numerous opportunities his team missed in breaking the game open early.
"I mean, 18 shots in the first period and we were down by one goal. We had chances, but we didn't get the bounces we deserved. We just didn't sustain it in the second period."
Price in goal as Halak ill
Netminder Carey Price kicked aside 22 of 27 shots in place of Jaroslav Halak, who has the flu and didn't make the trip. Price has allowed 25 goals in his past five starts.
At 34-23-7, the Canadiens remain fifth in the East and continue their three-game road trip against the Atlanta Thrashers on Friday before a Sunday visit to Dallas.
Buffalo centre Tim Connolly, who signed a two-year extension worth $9 million US earlier Wednesday, set up Roy's first of two goals at 17:53 of the first period with the Sabres up a man.
Roy added his second of the night by the three-minute mark of the second, redirecting a Daniel Paille pass by Price after Montreal defencemen Josh Gorges and Mike Komisarek failed to clear the puck from behind their team's net.
Spacek made it 3-0 midway through the period, taking advantage of a turnover by Canadiens forward Tom Kostopoulos, and has scored seven of the 12 goals by Sabres blue-liners this season.
Gaustad added his eighth and ninth of the campaign five minutes apart in the final 20 minutes. On the short-handed marker, he outskated Montreal defenceman Mathieu Schneider and broke in alone on Price, slipping a backhander through his legs.