By the time the Buffalo Sabres take the ice Saturday night, they could be in position to secure their first division title in three years.
Seeking a fifth straight win over Montreal, the Sabres head to the Bell Centre to meet the Canadiens, who are coming off a dramatic victory in their drive for one of the Eastern Conference’s final playoff spots.
If Ottawa loses in regulation at the New York Islanders earlier on Saturday, all Buffalo (43-24-10) needs to do to clinch its first Northeast crown since 2006-07 is beat Montreal (38-32-8). The Sabres have won both games in Montreal this season and three straight there overall.
Buffalo is a point ahead of New Jersey and Pittsburgh for the second seed in the East, and Jason Pominville(notes) said the Sabres are well aware of what is going on around them as teams jockey for postseason position.
“There’s still a lot of movement every day,” said Pominville, who has eight goals and nine assists in his last 13 games. “But I think we’d be lying to say that we’re not looking at what’s going on around the league.”
What Buffalo saw Thursday was a 4-2 loss at Toronto—the Sabres’ first in six games against the conference-worst Maple Leafs.
“We better raise our level of play in general,” said goaltender Ryan Miller(notes), who is one victory shy of matching his career high of 40 set when the Sabres last won the division. “It’s imperative that we have good habits. It’s a bad cycle to go into the playoffs like that … I don’t want to see any more of it.”
Miller turned away 30 shots in a 1-0 road victory over the Canadiens on Jan. 3.
Facing Montreal could be exactly what the Sabres need to get back on track. Since a season-opening, 2-1 overtime loss on Oct. 3, Buffalo has won four straight while outscoring the Canadiens 13-7.
“We want to get on a roll, we want to be a team that is going well heading into the playoffs,” Pominville said. “We have the opportunity to bounce back in Montreal against a team that is pretty desperate.”
With just four points separating sixth through 10th place in the East, the Canadiens’ 1-0 victory in Philadelphia on Friday was critical. Montreal not only avoided a third straight loss, but moved into sole possession of sixth with 84 points, two ahead of the Flyers and Boston.
Against the Flyers, Tomas Plekanec(notes) scored midway through the first period and Jaroslav Halak(notes) looked playoff-ready by making 35 saves for his fourth shutout of the season and eighth of his career.
“If we get into the playoffs, it’s a huge win. But if not, it’s just a regular win,” he said. “We’ll see how important a win it was in about a week from now.”
Whoever starts in goal for Montreal will likely not have to face Tim Connolly(notes) (foot) and Thomas Vanek(notes) (lower-body injury). Connolly leads Buffalo with 48 assists and 65 points, and Vanek is tied for the team lead with nine power-play goals.