Niemi stops 35 shots in Canadiens’ 3-0 win over Sabres
BUFFALO, N.Y. (AP) — Upon handing the puck to Canadiens goalie Antti Niemi in honor of his 35-save performance, defenseman Karl Alzner had a hard time believing how long it has been since his teammate’s last shutout.
It’s been more than two years.
“It’s hard to believe as good of a goalie as he is for that to be the case,” Alzner said, Friday night, following a 3-0 win over the Buffalo Sabres in a game between two teams out of playoff contention. “It’s nice to be part of it and nice to be there for him to get it.”
Niemi’s 36th career shutout was also significant given how the 34-year-old finally landed in Montreal — his fourth team in less than a calendar year. He went from being released by Dallas in June to signing with Pittsburgh in July and then being claimed off waivers twice in three weeks — first by Florida in October, and then by the Canadiens in November.
“What he’s persevered through and also his work ethic is unbelievable,” coach Claude Julien said. “There’s no doubt he’s been a real positive for our hockey club.”
Niemi improved to 6-4-4 with Montreal, and the shutout was his first since a 20-save performance in Dallas’ 4-0 win over Chicago on Dec. 22, 2015.
“I knew it’s been a long time,” said Niemi, who won a Stanley Cup with Chicago as a rookie in 2010. “I wouldn’t have cared too much if they would’ve scored one in the end and we still won. I like the way I played.”
Artturi Lehkonen scored the go-ahead goal by converting a puck that bounced off the end boards 4:56 into the second period. Former Sabres forward Paul Byron and Brendan Gallagher then scored empty-net goals 22 seconds apart in the final 1:15 to seal the win.
Montreal had lost its past four overall, and gone 0-5-2 on the road since a 6-3 win at the New York Islanders on March 2.
Nothing is going right for the NHL’s last-place Sabres, who closed their six-game homestand at 1-4-1. The Sabres’ league-worst home record dropped to 11-22-5, and they must win their final two home games to avoid setting a franchise low for fewest wins in an 82-game season (13-21-7, in 2012-13).
Buffalo’s league-worst offense was blanked for the second time in three games — following a 4-0 shutout loss to Nashville on Monday — and seventh time this season. The Sabres also lost to a Canadiens opponent now tied with Arizona with the NHL’s fewest road wins (10) and has scored a league-low 85 goals on the road.
The poster-boy for frustration was forward Ryan O’Reilly, who muffed Kyle Okposo’s pass while facing an open net during a two-man advantage eight minutes into the third period.
“I’ve got to be better. It’s my fault,” O’Reilly said. “I should just get behind it and take my time. It was a stupid play by me.”
O’Reilly also had Niemi beat on a rush up the right wing with 2:55 left in the second period. With room between the post and Niemi’s pad, O’Reilly missed stuffing the puck in and instead had it slide through the crease.
“I’ve done that move in practice hundreds of times,” he said. “When it matters, I don’t do it. Just letting the guys down.”
O’Reilly wasn’t the only one off the mark. Scott Wilson hit the crossbar from the left circle in the first period. And Sam Reinhart was set up alone atop the crease only to be robbed by Niemi in the second period.
Sabres rookie Linus Ullmark allowed one goal on the 22 shots he faced.
Lehkonen scored when teammate Alex Galchenyuk’s shot from the left circle was blocked in front. The puck dribbled to Jacob de la Rose, who snapped a shot just wide of the net from the slot. The puck struck the boards and to Lehkonen, who flipped it in above Ullmark’s out-stretched right leg.
NOTES: Sabres C Zemgus Girgensons returned after missing two games with an undisclosed injury. ... After opening the season with a 3-2 shootout win at Buffalo, the Canadiens proceeded to go 0-6-1 in their next seven. ... Before the game, the Sabres honored Luke McDermott and Adam Page, two local members the United States gold-medal-winning Paralympic hockey team.
Canadiens: Host Washington Capitals on Saturday.
Sabres: At New York Rangers on Saturday.
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