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Canadiens Face Biggest Game Yet

May 11, 1998

MONTREAL (AP) _ There’s no getting around it. Just ask anybody looking to buy tickets outside the Molson Centre or walking along the downtown streets toward the train station.

Ask anybody who plays for the Montreal Canadiens. Ask anybody who has ever rooted for the Montreal Canadiens. Basically, ask anybody north of New York state and south of the Arctic Circle.

The Canadiens’ game against the Buffalo Sabres on Tuesday night is a biggie. After losing the first two games in Buffalo, there won’t be a bigger one for Montreal _ until Game 4, anyway.

``I know being down 2-0 is possible. We have a lot of work ahead of us,″ Canadiens captain Vincent Damphousse said. ``It’s not the ideal situation to be in, but we’re going to fight until the end.″

There was a time when the end meant only one thing in Montreal: the Stanley Cup. The Canadiens won the NHL’s biggest prize 24 times, three of which came after losing the first two games of a best-of-7 series.

Montreal fans were in a panic Monday after the Canadiens twice had chances to beat the Sabres and twice came away losing in Buffalo. In the first game, the Canadiens dominated but were beaten by Sabres goaltender Dominik Hasek. In Game 2, they beat Hasek three times and lost again when Matthew Barnaby had three goals in the final 22 minutes.

``It would have been nice to go home with a split, but we lost Game 1 when we were much sharper,″ Canadiens defenseman Peter Popovic said. ``Not (Sunday) afternoon. Don’t ask me why, but there was breakdown after breakdown defensively.″

Canadian people know all too well what Hasek can do. He was the Czech Republic goalie who eliminated Team Canada from gold-medal contention in the Olympics by pitching a shutout in a shootout. Having beaten Canada, he now wants the Canadiens.

``There’s not a little panic, there’s a lot of panic,″ ticket scalper Carlo Belmonte said. ``The morale is down here because people think (the series) is over. Beating Hasek is like trying to break into Fort Knox. It’s not easy.″

The unsettling feeling that the Canadiens could be eliminated before the weekend has reached the city’s only English-speaking newspaper, the Montreal Gazette. One caller left a profanity-laced message for a columnist that followed with a few suggested line changes for coach Alain Vigneault.

Vigneault considered switching goalies after Andy Moog was beaten five times in Buffalo’s 6-3 victory on Sunday. Moog also left the game after Sabres forward Vaclav Varada barreled into him moments after the fifth goal. Switching now would be another sign of desperation.

``They’re in a little bit of a serious situation down 2-0,″ Sabres coach Lindy Ruff said. ``We can afford to take a few chances and come at them. I don’t want to sit back and hope we win the game 1-0. We want to go right at them.″

The Sabres, of course, have been enjoying the playoffs on many fronts. After stealing Game 1 and playing well in Game 2, they have won five consecutive playoff games going back to Game 3 against the Philadelphia Flyers in the first round.

Buffalo also is aware that the Molson Centre hasn’t been a very warm place for Montreal, which was 32-34-16 at home over the previous two years. The Canadiens had a 15-17-9 home record this season and are 0-6-1 in its last seven games against the Sabres.

To win the series, the Canadiens must win four out of the next five games, which means beating Buffalo in at least two straight. The Sabres have not lost two straight since December and haven’t lost three straight since the playoffs last season.

So maybe there is reason for the Canadiens (the team) and the Canadians (the people) to become a little nervous.

``It’s way too early to say,″ Buffalo forward Dixon Ward said. ``There are five games left in this series, so 2-1 is not far away for them. We have to do our best to push this (lead) to three games. Then, maybe, we have them on the ropes.″

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