The Northeast Division-leading Montreal Canadiens reached their goal of qualifying for the playoffs earlier than expected. Now, they can focus on trying to win a division title for the first time in 15 seasons while claiming their first conference crown since 1989.
|"It gives us some time to get ready for the playoffs and obviously we have games still left and we want to finish first," Canadiens captain Saku Koivu said of the team clinching a playoff spot. (AP Photo/The Canadian Press, Ryan Remiorz)
The Canadiens get a chance to reclaim the top spot in the Eastern Conference on Friday night when they open a three-game road trip against the Buffalo Sabres.
Montreal (43-24-10), the top team in the Northeast by four points over Ottawa, is a point behind East-leading Pittsburgh, which beat the New York Islanders 3-1 on Wednesday. However, the Canadiens have five games remaining, while the Atlantic Division-leading Penguins have four.
The Canadiens moved atop the conference with a 7-5 win over the Senators on Monday, as Andrei Kostitsyn scored two of the Habs' three first-period goals. That victory secured Montreal's second trip to the playoffs in three seasons.
"It gives us some time to get ready for the playoffs and obviously we have games still left and we want to finish first," Canadiens captain Saku Koivu said. "That's our goal now, but it's kind of a derivative from preparation when you know that you're going to be there than a lot of years before where we played to the last game and still didn't know if we were going to make it or not."
The Canadiens haven't won a division since taking the Adams Division title in 1991-92. Their last conference championship came when the East was known as the Wales Conference.
They hope to get closer to equaling those feats by matching their season-high, four-game winning streak.
Montreal's trip takes it to last-place Toronto on Saturday before visiting Ottawa Tuesday. The Canadiens, who lead the East with 50 road points, close the regular season at home against Buffalo (36-30-11) on April 3 and the Maple Leafs two nights later.
Alex Kovalev, who has two goals and three assists in the last three games, has been a big part of the Canadiens' success away from home. He has five goals and 11 assists in helping Montreal go 6-2-0 in its last eight road games.
Kovalev is also getting help from Tomas Plekanec, who has six goals and three assists in his last six games as the visitor.
|Thomas Vanek has four goals and an assist in his last three games. (AP Photo/David Duprey)
That span includes Plekanec's first career hat trick and a four-assist performance from Kovalev in a 6-2 win at Buffalo on Feb. 29, as the Canadiens tied the season series at three wins apiece.
The Sabres are 10th in the East, five points behind idle Boston for the eighth and final playoff spot. Two of their final five games are against the Bruins, including the regular-season finale on April 5.
They kept pace with Boston on Thursday when Paul Gaustad scored with 1:26 left in regulation before Derek Roy netted the decisive shootout goal, giving Buffalo a 4-3 win over Ottawa shortly after Boston beat Toronto 4-2. The Sabres' victory salvaged a split of a home-and-home set after they fell 6-3 at home to the Senators on Tuesday.
"I thought we deserved to win it from start to finish," Sabres coach Lindy Ruff said. "We didn't give up a lot, we did a pretty good job against their top line, and I think when you work that hard and put the work in - we got rewarded."
Thomas Vanek has been solid of late, getting four goals and an assist in the last three games. He has three goals and four assists in the six matchups against Montreal, with five of those points coming at home.