BUFFALO -- The Habs didn’t just clinch a spot in the playoffs on Thursday night; they did it with authority.
An overtime loss to the Sabres combined with a Panthers win over the Jets would have been enough to seal Montreal’s playoff fate, but the Habs opted to do away with the tie breaker formula and just win their way in. With a berth in the postseason up for grabs, the Canadiens left nothing to chance, peppering the Sabres with 32 shots in the first 40 minutes alone to head into the second intermission riding a comfortable 4-0 lead.
“It’s always more fun when you can go in on a win. It’s more exciting,” admitted Brendan Gallagher, who scored his 12th goal of the season to help the Habs leave Buffalo with a convincing 5-1 win. “We can look back at what we’ve done so far and be happy with it but we can’t be satisfied. This is just the beginning.
“Growing up, every kid wants to play in the playoffs and you want to win the Stanley Cup,” added the 20-year-old winger, who will enjoy his first taste of NHL postseason action in less than three weeks. “To get a crack at it in our first year is something we’re really looking forward to, but there’s a lot of work to be done still and we want to go into the playoffs playing our best hockey.”
True to form, the Habs earned their playoff berth thanks to a healthy dose of the team concept Michel Therrien has been stressing since training camp opened in January. In Thursday’s win, 10 different Canadiens factored in on the scoresheet, 15 fired at least one shot on goal, two players dropped the gloves and the team allowed a mere 15 shots to sneak their way through to Peter Budaj, who registered his seventh consecutive win in his ninth game of the campaign.
“It’s not a secret that hockey is a team game. If you play like a team from the first second to the last second, you have a chance to win,” stressed Habs assistant captain Andrei Markov, who scored his eighth power play goal of the season on Thursday night and leads all NHL defensemen in that category. “That’s what we’ve been doing all season long and we have to continue to do that. It’s a good feeling, but that was just our first step. We have to continue playing well and we have to continue to improve. We have to be ready for the playoffs. We can’t stop and we can’t relax.”
With eight games remaining in the season, the Canadiens provided themselves with some uncharacteristic breathing room heading into the playoffs. Since 2001-02, the Habs have earned a spot in the postseason seven times, clinching five of those berths in the last or second last game of the year.
Despite becoming just the third team in the NHL to earn the coveted “X” beside their name in the standings in 2012-13, the Habs have no intention of coasting their way through the remaining eight games on the calendar.
“To get to the top, you have to take it step by step. The first step we set at the beginning of the year was to make the playoffs and we accomplished that tonight, but we have a couple more big ones ahead of us,” confirmed Budaj, who stopped 14 of the 15 shots he faced. “We’re going to be ready.
“We’re excited because it’s quite an accomplishment coming from where we were last year,” added the Habs netminder of his team’s remarkable transition from last place in the conference in 2011-12 to first in the northeast division one year later. “We’ve worked really hard from the staff and management all the way down, but we’re not satisfied. There’s still a lot of work to be done.”
Shauna Denis is a writer for canadiens.com.