I haven’t met an NHL coach yet who will admit his team is out of the playoffs until the final mathematical point is lost.

Based on his roster moves to set up Thursday night’s game against Buffalo, Claude Julien hasn’t yet faced the overwhelming odds-against and deserted the sinking Canadiens ship. And off what we saw from his team as a whole, it’s evident they are prepared to go down to the wire fighting as well.

EXPEDIENT, BUT CONTROVERSIAL

Brendan Gallagher was returning to the lineup after missing all but one game over the last month with that concussion. The return of an important player means a player who was seeing regular game action was going to be a healthy scratch.

Julien solved the problem by sitting out Jesperi Kotkaniemi. That set off the predictable fire storm of criticism over the way Julien is handling his young players and ignores the fact that Kotkaniemi has frankly not been very good this season, including his last 14 games during which he has only three points and one goal. Julien’s decision was strictly a hockey one.  A better question might be, ‘why is he not getting confidence-building ice time in Laval?’  It’s still something we may see before the season ends.

THE DOMINO EFFECT

So Gallagher comes back in the lineup. He bumps the surprisingly successful Ilya Kovalchuk off the first line. With Kotkaniemi out Max Domi, who clearly was uncomfortable playing on a wing, moved back to centre on what has become a third line.

Kovalchuk was placed on the right side of the Domi line with Nick Cousins on left wing.  Logic would tell you that was doomed from the start. A goalscorer like Kovalchuk needs to get the puck and neither Domi nor Cousins are noted for their play making. By the end of the first period Kovalchuk was back at his natural left wing with Nick Suzuki and Joel Armia. And together through the game’s final two periods they made fine music. Kovalchuk’s goal early in the second period was the stuff of natural goalscorers.  He roofed a loose puck in close quarters in front of the Buffalo goal.  It was his fifth goal and ninth point in ten Canadiens games.

Suzuki drew an assist on that goal and also set up Tatar on the clinching empty net goal. The line produced eight of the Canadiens thirty shots. As a line they produced five high danger scoring chances while giving up none.

THE CATALYST

And what can we say about Gallagher that hasn’t been repeated time and again. When he’s one the ice stuff happens. One game in the last month and he was still as sharp, competitive and disruptive as ever. His goal was the game winner, a neat forehand to backhand move in traffic as usual. Gallagher post five shots on goal, four of the listed as high danger which always means in middle of the congestion in front of the net.

CAREY-ING ON

Another strong game from Price. The Sabres took the game’s first nine shots. Not much he could do on Jack Eichel’s power play goal, already his 30th of the season. There was also the Jeff Skinner crossbar in the opening ten minutes. After that his teammates pretty much gave him the night off. He dealt with only one high danger scoring chance through the games final two periods.

ALSO WORTH MENTIONING

….Nick Suzuki recorded the second most ice-time minutes among Canadiens forwards at 17:50. Linemate Armia led at 18:05. Julien had both Suzuki and Armia on the ice killing a key penalty to Danault in the third period with the Canadiens protecting a one goal lead.

….After giving up the game’s first nine shots, the Canadiens out shot the Sabres 29-12 through the final 50 minutes.

….High danger scoring chances in the game favoured Montreal 13-4.  Three of those four dangerous Buffalo chances came in the game’s first ten minutes.

….With two more points, Suzuki now has 30 for the season. He has a chance at 50 in his rookie season which would be remarkable.

….Along with Kotkaniemi, defenseman Cale Fleury might also benefit from regular ice time in Laval. With Marco Scandella seeing regular duty on left defense, Fleury was a healthy scratch for the fourth consecutive game.

….Over their last seven games the Canadiens are 5-2-0. It has barely improved their position in regards the final wild card berth which is held by Carolina. Because Carolina holds the tiebreaker, the Canadiens still need to gain eleven points on them and also pass Philadelphia and Toronto in the final 30 games. Carolina and Philadelphia each hold two games in hand; Toronto has one.

MOVING ON

Super Bowl weekend. Afternoon games.

Florida, winners of six in a row,  currently holds down third in the Atlantic Division. Also ten points ahead of the Canadiens and holding the tiebreaking ROW number. They’ll play Saturday afternoon at the Bell Centre.

On Sunday it will be Columbus. The Blue Jackets currently hold down the first Eastern Conference wild card berth, a point ahead of Carolina.

Next week the Canadiens play in New Jersey Tuesday followed by home games against Anaheim and Thursday and Saturday.