BUFFALO, N.Y. (AP) — Victor Olofsson and Anders Bjork scored 2:01 apart in the second period, and the Buffalo Sabres followed a tumultuous summer with a stunning season-opening 5-1 win over the injury-depleted Montreal Canadiens on Thursday night.
Overcoming initial questions of lacking offense and leadership with deposed captain Jack Eichel’s future in Buffalo uncertain, assistant captains Kyle Okposo and Zemgus Girgensons stepped up to generate Buffalo’s first two goals in a game the Sabres never trailed. Eichel was stripped of his captaincy last month and remains on injured reserve over a dispute with the team over how to treat a herniated disk which has sidelined him since March.
Forty-year-old Craig Anderson stopped 30 shots in his debut with his sixth NHL team.
The Sabres converted three of six power-play opportunities, with Tage Thompson pushing Buffalo’s lead to 5-1 early in the third period.
While Buffalo looked nothing like the team that finished last in the NHL standings for the fourth time in eight seasons, the Canadiens didn’t come close to resembling the team that reached the Stanley Cup Final, before losing in five games to Tampa Bay in July.
Montreal was coming off a 2-1 season-opening loss at Toronto on Wednesday, and opened a season 0-2 for the first time since 2000.
Chris Wideman scored for Montreal, and Sam Montembeault stopped 31 shots in his Canadiens’ debut after being acquired off waivers from Florida two weeks ago.
The Canadiens have eight players on IR, including captain Shea Weber and goalie Carey Price, who last week entered the NHL/NHL Players’ Association joint player assistance program.
The fallout from the Sabres’ offseason player purge, Eichel’s dispute and 10-season playoff drought was evident with the stands appearing to not even be half full in an arena with a 19,200 capacity. The Sabres did not announce the attendance. One fan showed up early wearing a paper bag over his head and an Eichel jersey.
The Sabres rewarded those who did attend by showing no signs of wilting after Wideman tapped in Joel Armia’s pass midway through the second period.
Olofsson scored shortly after a two-man advantage ended by snapping a shot from the right circle with 2:55 remaining in the second period.
Girgensons, who missed all of last season with a hamstring injury, then played a key role on Bjork’s goal. After blocking a shot in Buffalo’s end, Girgensons led a three-on-two break before having his initial shot stopped, with Bjork converting the rebound to the right of the net.
Sabres center Casey Mittelstadt did not return after sustaining an upper body injury midway through the second period.
It’s been 623 days since the Atlantic Division rivals last met on Jan. 30, 2020, in Buffalo, where the Canadiens beat the Sabres 3-1.
The Sabres were in Montreal preparing to face the Canadiens on March 10, 2020, when the NHL paused its season because of the coronavirus pandemic. The season was canceled two months later, with Montreal clinching the Eastern Conference’s 12th and final playoff berth .007 percentage points ahead of Buffalo.
The Sabres opened with a video featuring current players and Sabres fans, and narrated by long-time broadcaster Rick Jeanneret, who spoke of the team’s long tradition and better days ahead. The 79-year-old Jeanneret, who began his career broadcasting Sabres games on Oct. 10, 1971, is the NHL’s longest-tenured announcer and has announced his plans to retire after working 20 games this season.
Before the game, the Sabres aired a video paying tribute to Rene Robert, a member of the team’s famed 1970s-era French Connection line, who died following a heart attack in June. Robert’s No. 14 was also imprinted on the ice behind both goals.
The team also honored former players Tom Kurvers and Fred Stanfield, who also died this summer.
Canadiens: With the exception of Montembeault starting in place of Jake Allen, Montreal stuck with the same lineup as against Toronto, with C Adam Brooks and Alex Belzile not playing. Montreal opened the season with eight players on IR.
Sabres: D Will Butcher, acquired in an offseason trade from New Jersey, and C John Hayden, an offseason free-agent addition, were healthy scratches.
Canadiens: Return to Montreal for home opener against the New York Rangers on Saturday.
Sabres: Continue season-opening four-game homestand facing Arizona Coyotes on Saturday.
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John Wawrow, The Associated Press