WINNIPEG – The Montreal Canadiens and Winnipeg Jets could be excused if they glimpsed at the out-of-town scoreboard at MTS Centre after their post-whistle scrums during the first two periods.
But by the end of the second intermission of what would become a 4-2 Montreal win, only the Canadiens still needed to steal glances at the scoreboard. Overtime wins by the New York Rangers and Ottawa Senators eliminated the Jets from Stanley Cup Playoff contention, extending the franchise's postseason drought to six seasons.
Winnipeg finished the season ninth in the Eastern Conference.
Goaltender Ondrej Pavelec and captain Andrew Ladd were two Jets who admitted that they knew Winnipeg's fate before taking the ice for the third period, in which Montreal swarmed the home side for three goals.
"I was aware of it," Ladd said, adding that he did not know how many of his teammates also knew. "It would have been easier if [we] had had the motivation of knowing that [we] still had a chance."
Montreal assured itself of home-ice advantage for the first round of the playoffs and stayed even with the Boston Bruins in the race for first place in the Northeast Division -- both teams have 61 points, but the Bruins have a game in hand. Montreal finishes its season on the road against the Toronto Maple Leafs on Saturday; Boston visits the Washington Capitals on Saturday and hosts Ottawa on Sunday.
Canadiens coach Michel Therrien acknowledged that clinching home ice to begin the playoffs eliminated one source of pressure.
"We still have a shot to [clinch the Northeast Division]," Therrien said. "It's a good thing that we won. I really liked the attitude tonight. I liked the way we competed. It's not the same pressure [Saturday], let's put it that way, but we've still got to play the game to win the game."
The Jets entered their regular-season finale clinging to the faintest of playoff hopes in a bid to reach the postseason for the first time since 2007, when the franchise was the Atlanta Thrashers. The Jets had to beat the Canadiens to have any chance at qualification and needed considerable scoreboard help to shove the Rangers or Senators out of a spot. But the Rangers pulled off a come-from-behind 4-3 road win in overtime against the Carolina Hurricanes, and the Senators took a 2-1 overtime decision from the Washington Capitals.
Winnipeg's 6-2-1 finish could not overcome the five-game losing streak that preceded it as well as a pair of back-to-back home losses to the Capitals in late March that allowed Washington to storm back into contention.
Rene Bourque, Brendan Gallagher, David Desharnais and Max Pacioretty scored for Montreal. Carey Price, whose April numbers before the game were 3-7-0 with a 3.67 goals-against average and an .872 save percentage, stopped 23 of 25 shots.
"I thought we all played pretty exceptionally," Price said. "I thought the effort was there. From the crease out, I thought that everybody played hard and deserved the win. I think that's the type of game we've been looking for. That's the style of hockey that has made us successful over the year."
James Wright and Blake Wheeler scored for the Jets. Pavelec closed out Winnipeg's regular season by making 26 saves in his 13th consecutive start.
Missing the postseason again left Wheeler frustrated.
"You want to be optimistic and look at the glass as half full, but I'm sick of it," Wheeler said. "I'm sick of going home right now. I think we have a lot of guys that are sick of going home right now, so I'm going to have a hard time drawing on any positives when you're going home and you're watching the important hockey being played from your couch again. So, that's going to be tough to swallow. Hopefully, we can all look in the mirror and make a change. I think we're on the right path but, you know, ninth place is a first-class ticket home again."
A few minutes after the Senators and Rangers completed the Jets' elimination, Montreal ended Winnipeg's hopes for a season-ending win with three third-period goals.
Gallagher's goal at 2:07 erased Winnipeg's 2-1 lead. Gallagher broke across the blue line and unleashed a heavy right-side shot that glanced off Pavelec's glove and across the goal line. Desharnais then finished off the Jets, smacking home a rebound on a 5-on-3 advantage with 12:03 remaining.
"It's not an excuse," Pavelec said, "but it's tough to play when you know that you've got 20 minutes to left in the season, and you've got nothing to play for. But it's not an excuse. We should [have] finished the game, but we didn't."
Max Pacioretty whipped a high shot Pavelec misplayed with 9:10 left for a 4-2 lead.
"For me, it was a two-period game," Jets coach Claude Noel said. "The third period, I don't know what [the Jets] knew or didn't know."
Wright started the scoring 9:10 into the game. Winnipeg managed six shots through the opening 30 minutes, but Price provided strong goaltending when needed. He denied Wheeler's first-period breakaway, stopped Wright's drive to the net a few minutes later, and smothered Wheeler's second breakaway shortly after Montreal tied the game 1-1 on Bourque's goal.
Wright capitalized on a miscue between Price and rookie defenseman Jarred Tinordi that resulted in a turnover in the right corner. Chris Thorburn retrieved the loose puck before directing a pass into the left circle that Wright steered into the net over Price's glove.
The Canadiens remained scoreless until the middle of the second period when Alex Galchenyuk and Lars Eller outworked the Jets in front of Pavelec. The rebound worked its way out to Bourque at the right of the net, where he jammed it through a pile of players at 9:54.
Wheeler gave Winnipeg the lead again at 14:43 with his team-leading 19th goal and his fifth in his past eight games. Wheeler muscled through the Montreal defense in front of Price after the rebound of a Dustin Byfuglien shot and stabbed the puck through Price's legs.
After facing Toronto in a potential first-round preview, the Canadiens can return home to open the playoffs at Bell Centre, where they compiled a 14-7-3 record this season.
"It's obviously nice to play at home," Price said. "We've had some success there this season, and it's definitely something, I think, to look forward to."
Now seemingly back on track, the Canadiens will turn their focus toward Toronto.
"We had to match their desperate hockey, and I thought we did a good job of it," Gallagher said of beating the Jets. "It's just one step. That's all it is, right, but it's a big step. It's nice to get a win and feel good about ourselves. We still have one game before the playoffs, and we've got to build on it. We've got to play the same way and hopefully get the same results."