MONTREAL -- It had always just been a matter of time, but on Thursday night it became official:
The Montreal Canadiens are headed to the 2017 Stanley Cup Playoffs.
The Habs entered the evening with a number of scenarios on the table which could have put the team through with a loss, but instead chose to control their own destinies with a convincing 6-2 win over Florida.
"We've been working towards this since the final buzzer went last year. This is what we made up our minds we had to do," underlined captain Max Pacioretty, whose team-best 35 goals have helped lead the Habs back to the postseason for the first time since 2015. "Throughout all the adversity, we've been able to come out and put together 77 good games [so far]."
Video: Pacioretty on clinching a playoff spot
Indeed, while Thursday may just be the first step in what's hopefully a long spring to come, it also feels like the final chapter of an unsatisfactory 2015-16 campaign whose book can finally be closed.
"We all had the mindset that we would use last year as a learning experience," explained the night's four-point first-star, Brendan Gallagher, after seeing the Habs get out to a franchise record 9-0-0 start a season ago, only to miss the big dance. "It was obviously disappointing, and really frustrating for the players who were in here to go through with, but we regrouped and are stronger for it."
Stronger, to the tune of a 44-24-9 record, with 97 points atop the Atlantic Division standings -- already 15 more than a year ago -- and a playoff ticket punched with five games left to play.
The key now however, will be making the most of those games which remain.
After all, for a team which has lit the lamp 13 times in its last three outings, the Habs will want to keep that type of goalscoring coming once mid-April hits.
Video: Gallagher on his four-point night
"You can see how important confidence and momentum are, and we've got a little right now, but it's up to us to keep it going in the playoffs," stressed Pacioretty, as five different Habs got on the board against the Panthers. "We're proud of what we've accomplished, but now we've got to get down and try to clean up a couple of areas of our game that we know will give us success in the playoffs. It's a good time for everybody to be feeling good about their game, [...] and creating offense like we did tonight."
Now six points up on the second-place Ottawa Senators, next in the clinching department for Montreal could be first place in the division, as the Habs kick off a three-game road trip beginning Saturday in Tampa.
"We're talking about the playoffs tonight, but as soon as we wake up tomorrow morning, we'll be putting in the work to have success and try to achieve our ultimate goal. It's a long year, with so many peaks and valleys, that we have to have everyone on the same page, doing whatever it takes to win games," concluded Pacioretty. "We've got five left, and we've got to handle them the right way."