MONTREAL - The Montreal Canadiens can finally get some rest.
Andrei Kostitsyn scored twice as the Canadiens built a big lead and held on for a 7-5 victory over the Ottawa Senators on Monday night that clinched a playoff spot and widened their lead atop the Eastern Conference to three points over the Pittsburgh Penguins.
"Now we can enjoy this for a couple of days," said Montreal captain Saku Koivu. "But you can play as well as you want in the regular season, you still have to be ready for the playoffs.
"We want to finish strong too, but slowly now, we can start thinking about the playoffs."
The Canadiens (43-24-10), who finished 10th in the conference last season and were picked by most pundits to miss the post-season again, not only lead the conference, although Pittsburgh has a game in hand, they also have a seven point separation over Ottawa atop the Northeast Division.
Christopher Higgins, Francis Bouillon, Andrei Markov, Mikhail Grabovski and Tom Kostopoulos also scored for Montreal, which has not lost in regulation time in five straight games and is 14-5-1 since Feb. 13. With 96 points, the Canadiens equalled their highest point total since 1993-94.
Since they don't play again until Friday night in Buffalo, all players will have the day off on Tuesday and only off-ice workouts were scheduled for some players on Wednesday.
Dany Heatley, with two, Antoine Vermette, Martin Lapointe and Jason Spezza scored for Ottawa (41-28-7), which has lost three of its last four games, a span in which it conceded 19 goals. The Senators, who are 26-26-7 since starting the season 15-2-0, play again Tuesday night in Buffalo.
And the Senators are getting banged up.
After losing Dean McAmmond (thigh) and Chris Kelly (fractured leg) earlier this week, they lost defenceman Wade Redden late in the first period after he fell awkwardly into the boards. He returned at the start of the second frame, but left again after one shift with a bruised hip, although coach Bryan Murray said he expects him to play in Buffalo.
Murray said his whole team wasn't ready for Montreal.
"It was more important for them early on than it was for us, obviously," he said. "We came out flat-footed, our defence didn't move the puck and we didn't get many stops from the goaltenders.
"When you dig a hole like that, it's hard to come back and even be competitive."
The Canadiens scored three times in the first period to chase starter Martin Gerber in favour of Ray Emery and held a 7-1 lead after two periods.
But Heatley and Lapointe scored early in the third period, then Heatley slammed Mike Commodore's long rebound past Carey Price at 9:23.
When Spezza added a power-play goal with 1:58 left to play, it spread a shiver through the sellout crowd of 21,273. The Senators have won five of seven meetings with Montreal this season.
"We didn't panic, but Ottawa came our strong and got the puck in deep and got it to the net," said Montreal coach Guy Carbonneau. "That's tough to defend.
"And we took some bad penalties. But the important thing is we won."
The teams have one game left to play against each other April 1 in Ottawa.
"I told the players we should be happy we clinched a playoff spot and that we're still in first place," added Carbonneau. "There's lots of good things. But we still have lessons to learn.
"In the playoffs, the games will be close and we can't make the mistakes and take the penalties we took in the third period. They would hurt us bad."
The Canadiens jumped on the flat Senators early.
Kostitsyn was alone to blast a rebound off the end boards past Gerber 1:40 into the game, Higgins poked in his own rebound at 13:26 and Kostitsyn banged in Mark Streit's rebound on a power play at 18:24.
Vermette jumped on a misplay by Price to put Ottawa on the board 9:43 into the second frame, but Bouillon, Markov, Grabovski and Kostopoulos poured in goals on Emery, who made his first appearance since Feb. 28.
Montreal's previous highest goal total against Ottawa was six on Oct. 4, 2001. The Senators are now 5-6-1 since Bryan Murray replaced John Paddock as coach.
Notes: Ottawa centre Cody Bass was kept out an extra game to allow time to rebuild his conditioning after an ankle injury. . . Mike Komisarek (lower body) and Guillaume Latendresse (neck spasms) are out for Montreal, while Mathieu Dandenault and Patrice Brisebois were healthy scratches. . . Canadiens associate coach Doug Jarvis celebrated his 53rd birthday.