The Buffalo Sabres blanked the Montreal Canadiens 3-0 Wednesday on the strength of two Cody Hodgson goals and a Ryan Miller shutout, putting them in an eighth-place tie with the Washington Capitals.
Buffalo (35-29-10) were dead last in the Eastern Conference as of Jan. 24 after dropping eight of nine, but have climbed from 15th into a tie with Washington at 80 points. The Capitals have a game in hand on the Sabres, with the two clubs facing each other on March 27 in Washington.
The Capitals also lead Buffalo 35-27 in the first standings tiebreaker: non-shootout victories.
"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."
Central to the comeback has been Miller, who earned his sixth shutout of the season with 34 saves.
The shutout was the 28th of his career, and fifth in his past 23 games.
The goals for Hodgson were his first in a Buffalo uniform since being dealt at the NHL's trade deadline from Vancouver on Feb. 27, at which time the Sabres were 12th in the East.
Sabres captain Jason Pominville scored his team leading 28th goal, while Derek Roy added two assists.
Buffalo's late-season push is suddenly resembling their remarkable run last year, when they 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," Roy said. "It shows the character of the boys."
Buffalo defenceman Tyler Myers returned to the lineup from a three-game suspension incurred for a hit earlier this month on Canadiens forward Scott Gomez.
Gomez missed his fourth straight game since sustaining a concussion as a result of the hit.
Montreal (28-33-13) has now dropped three in a row and remain last in the East.
"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."
With little to lose, Cunneyworth pulled goalie Carey 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.
Montreal got off to a fast start, holding a 5-2 edge in shots, but it was the Sabres who struck first.
Hodgson opened the scoring 6:15 in, capping a great individual effort for his first goal in 12 games as a Sabre. The rookie centre burst up the right side, cut between Montreal's Aaron Palushaj and Alexei Emelin, and got off a weak shot, which 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. After failing to get a point in his first 10 games with Buffalo, Hodgson has two goals and two assists in his past two.
After Pominville scored 2:31 into the second period, Hodgson converted Roy's centring pass for a power-play goal 12:45 into the third period.
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.
|Eastern Playoff Race||PTS||GR||**ROW|
|12. Maple Leafs||72||8||29|
|*Division Leader **ROW = Regulation + OT Wins x-clinched playoff berth|