BUFFALO -- The Montreal Canadiens finished the 2011-12 season with the worst record in the Eastern Conference and found themselves picking third in the 2012 NHL Draft.
Less than a year later, Alex Galchenyuk, Montreal's first-round selection, helped them clinch a berth in the Stanley Cup Playoffs.
Galchenyuk, Rene Bourque, Brendan Gallagher, Andrei Markov and P.K. Subban each had a goal Thursday when the Canadiens defeated the Buffalo Sabres 5-1 at First Niagara Center to secure a spot in the playoffs. Montreal goalie Peter Budaj improved to 7-1-1, making 14 saves.
"We were always confident in the group in our room," Subban said. "Sometimes it's tough. The one thing I've learned about playing in the NHL is momentum doesn't carry from season to season. It's built from game one through 82 games, when we have a regular season. You've got to give the coaching staff and the organization credit."
The victory by the Canadiens (26-9-5), combined with the Boston Bruins' loss to the New York Islanders, moved Montreal back into first place in the Northeast Division. The Canadiens have 57 points to the Bruins' 56.
Montreal missed the playoffs last season for the first time since 2006-07, and getting back has been one of coach Michel Therrien's goals since he took over prior to this season.
"It's a good accomplishment, but that's only a first step. That's the way we see it. And this is the way those guys see it too," Therrien said. "And we realize that there's a lot of hockey to be played and there's more steps coming."
"When you talk about a team win, this is exactly what [you mean]," Therrien said. "Everyone contributed."
Thursday marked the final meeting of the season between the clubs. Buffalo was 3-1-0 against Montreal this season. When the teams met March 23 in Montreal, goaltender Ryan Miller kept the Sabres in the game; they were outshot 39-18 but won 2-1.
Montreal poured it on against Buffalo again Thursday. The Canadiens outshot the Sabres 15-7 in the first period and held a 2-0 lead on goals by Bourque and Galchenyuk.
Seven minutes into the second period, the Canadiens were outshooting Buffalo 11-1 and held a 32-11 edge by the time the horn sounded. Gallagher and Markov scored in the second to give Montreal a four-goal lead.
Miller stopped 28 shots through two periods before being relieved by Jhonas Enroth to start of the third. Enroth made nine saves on 10 shots. Montreal finished the game outshooting the Sabres 42-15; the Canadiens had 14 shots blocked and 13 that missed the net.
The Sabres sit at 38 points, six points out of a playoff spot with seven games remaining. Five of those last seven games are on home ice, but Buffalo is 8-8-3 at First Niagara Center this season.
Brian Flynn scored shorthanded for the Sabres 6:45 into the third period to spoil Budaj's shutout.
"We didn't have enough effort. We didn't have enough going. We had too many passengers tonight," Sabres interim coach Ron Rolston said.
Canadiens forward Jeff Halpern reached a milestone, playing in his 900th NHL game.
Budaj got the start after the team announced Wednesday he had signed a two-year contract extension. He was rewarded again with a win. The Montreal defense did its part, blocking 13 shots.
"Guys were working hard, blocking shots. … It made my job really easy," Budaj said. "It's just exciting to see and I'm very thankful to be a part of this team. We have a great group of guys and, like I said, it's the first step of many, many ahead of us."
Bourque opened the scoring 6:43 into the game. Sabres forward Thomas Vanek lost the puck in his skates at the Canadiens blue line and Bourque started back on a 2-on-1 with Tomas Plekanec. Bourque sent the puck to Plekanec on the right wing, where he fed a backhand pass back into the slot to Brian Gionta, coming late. Gionta's shot deflected off Bourque's heel as he crossed in front of the net and went past Miller.
Montreal struck again at 10:27 after some hard work behind the net. Ryder beat defenseman Mike Weber and curled his way around in front to Miller's left. Ryder sent a pass across the crease that Galchenyuk buried on his second attempt after his first went off the side of the net and came right back to him.
Galchenyuk, who turned 19 in February, has six goals in his first professional season.
Gallagher, a fellow rookie who was drafted in 2010 (No. 147) by Montreal, put the Canadiens ahead 3-0 at 4:36 of the second period. A slap shot by David Desharnais was turned aside by Miller, but the rebound went to Gallagher, who was standing unchecked to Miller's right. Gallagher pulled the puck back into the slot and reached past the outstretched goalie to put it in around his left pad for his 12th of the season.
"We've got two young kids out there and we give them big roles," Therrien said of Galchenyuk and Gallagher. "…We like the way our young kids are playing."
Montreal made it 4-0 at 17:54 during a 5-on-3 power play. Flynn attempted to block Andrei Markov's slap shot from the point, but the puck deflected off his stick, floated up and skipped into the net behind Miller.
Subban scored a power-play goal with 2:41 remaining in regulation to make it 5-1. His shot from the point was deflected before finding its way past Enroth. The goal was Subban's 11th of the season, the most by any NHL defenseman.
"Marc Bergevin, for his first year to come in [as executive vice president and general manager] and put together a group that was able to clinch a playoff spot with [eight] games left in the season, it's a pretty big accomplishment," Subban said. "And Michel Therrien has done a great job with our group. It's been an unbelievable year from top to bottom."
Like his teammates, Subban was quick to note that simply making the playoffs isn't their only goal, but a milestone along the way.
"It's a huge accomplishment for us, but we're not finished," he said. "We have a lot to accomplish here. Hopefully, we can get home ice Saturday [on the road against the Toronto Maple Leafs]."
|Rene Bourque (6) ASST: Brian Gionta (12), Tomas Plekanec (16)|
1 - 0 MTL
|Alex Galchenyuk (6) ASST: Michael Ryder (17)|
2 - 0 MTL
|Brendan Gallagher (12) ASST: David Desharnais (14), Max Pacioretty (20)|
3 - 0 MTL
|PPG - Andrei Markov (8) ASST: P.K. Subban (23), Michael Ryder (18)|
4 - 0 MTL
|SHG - Brian Flynn (5) ASST: Kevin Porter (4), Andrej Sekera (10)|
4 - 1 MTL
|PPG - P.K. Subban (11) ASST: Andrei Markov (18), Max Pacioretty (21)|
5 - 1 MTL
|Patrick Kaleta Fighting against Brandon Prust|
|Brandon Prust Fighting against Patrick Kaleta|
|Adam Pardy Holding against Michael Ryder|
|Nathan Gerbe Elbowing against Lars Eller|
|Steve Ott Fighting against Francis Bouillon|
|Francis Bouillon Fighting against Steve Ott|
|Mike Weber Delaying Game - Puck over glass|
|Jochen Hecht Hi-sticking against Brendan Gallagher|
|Brandon Prust Tripping against Drew Stafford|
|Luke Adam Tripping against David Desharnais|
|Tyler Ennis Too many men on the ice|
|Brendan Gallagher Interference - Goalkeeper against Jhonas Enroth|
|Jochen Hecht Holding against Max Pacioretty|
|Nathan Gerbe Abuse of officials|
|Rene Bourque Roughing against Brian Flynn|