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Canadiens can reach first goal by clinching playoffs

by Chris Ryndak

BUFFALO -- The Montreal Canadiens have a chance to clinch a berth in the Stanley Cup Playoffs on Thursday and the players are well aware of that opportunity.

The Canadiens can qualify for the playoffs with a win against the Buffalo Sabres at First Niagara Center, or if they earn one point against the Sabres and the Florida Panthers defeat the Winnipeg Jets in any fashion Thursday.

"At the start of this season, your first goal is to get into the playoffs, and we have an opportunity tonight to reach that first goal," Canadiens alternate captain Josh Gorges said. "I think we have to understand and respect the importance of tonight's game and understand the opponent that we're facing too."

Buffalo has earned points in eight of its past 11 games but is coming off a 4-1 loss to the Jets on Tuesday.

"[Buffalo] is a good team that's [fallen] on some tough times, but they've been playing a lot better as of late," Gorges said. "They're fighting for their lives. They want to get into the playoffs."

Montreal has won five of its past seven games, and Canadiens coach Michel Therrien is locked in on how his team will play and how to maintain consistency. He senses no extra urgency to win Thursday just because a playoff spot can be secured.

"That's not part of the motivation. My concern and focus is always on how we play and making sure we get a good start and maintain that," Therrien said. "The No. 1 goal for us this year, we were saying when we started the season, was we were going to fight with a group that was going to try to make the playoffs. But my focus is always on how our team plays."

Canadiens forward Jeff Halpern is set to play in his 900th NHL game Thursday. After the team's optional morning skate, the 13-year veteran said he never expected to reach this milestone because he was always focused on getting to the next level, whether it was playing in college or on the professional stage.

"I think that's always how I've approached every season. [I've been] trying to do well enough to continue playing. The game's fun and if you get a chance to keep playing, that's the goal," Halpern said.

Ryan Miller is set to start for the Sabres against Peter Budaj, who signed a two-year contract extension with Montreal on Wednesday.

Buffalo will make forward John Scott a healthy scratch. Luke Adam will play in his place.

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