MONTREAL -- The Montreal Canadiens clinched a berth in the Stanley Cup Playoffs with a 6-2 win against the Florida Panthers at Bell Centre on Thursday.
The Canadiens (44-24-9), who missed the playoffs last season, lead the Ottawa Senators by six points for first place in the Atlantic Division. The Senators lost 5-1 at the Minnesota Wild on Thursday. Ottawa has one game in hand.
Montreal, which has won three straight, is 12-3-1 in its past 16 games, and 12-5-1 since Claude Julien replaced Michel Therrien as coach on Feb. 14.
WATCH: All Panthers vs. Canadiens highlights
Brendan Gallagher had an NHL career-high four points (one goal, three assists) for Montreal. Max Pacioretty scored his 35th goal, Paul Byron scored twice and Carey Price made 29 saves.
"It's a good feeling," Pacioretty said. "You know, we've worked since the final buzzer went last year, this was what we made up our minds we had to do. And through all the adversity we've been able to come out and put together 77 good games. We're proud of what we've accomplished but now we've got to get down and try and clean up a couple of areas of our game that we know will make us successful in the playoffs. And it's a good time for everyone to feel good about their game and we hope to go into the playoffs with some momentum and get everyone creating offense like we had tonight."
Reilly Smith and Michael Matheson scored, and Reto Berra made 27 saves for Florida (33-33-11).
The Panthers, who have lost the first three games of a four-game road trip, finished first in the Atlantic last season.
Byron put Montreal up 1-0 in the first period with his 21st goal at 7:24. Tomas Plekanec made it 2-0 at 10:04 with his ninth goal, and Gallagher got his third straight assist on Byron's second goal of the game, his 22nd, at 13:19.
Video: FLA@MTL: Byron sweeps home a wrister from the circle
"We had a real bad start," Panthers coach Tom Rowe said. "The first period, they came at us real hard and we didn't handle their pressure and their speed at all, and we obviously didn't protect the front of our net very well."
Smith scored his 15th goal at 10:14 of the second period to get Florida within 3-1.
Pacioretty scored at 3:52 of the third period to make it 4-1.
Matheson's sixth goal made it 4-2 at 8:45 but Gallagher gave Montreal its third three-goal lead at 5-2 at 12:55.
Phillip Danault increased the lead to 6-2 at 16:49.
"Any time someone had the puck he had two guys open in little areas, little pockets, and we were able to hunt down pucks on the forecheck," Gallagher said. "And that makes a big difference, when you can kind of feel each other out and have that chemistry as a line where you [don't] have to think about it, you just know where the other guys are going to be and things start to develop quickly."
Video: FLA@MTL: Plekanec nets Gallagher's centering feed
Goal of the game
Byron drove the slot to score his second goal on a centering pass from defenseman Nathan Beaulieu.
Video: FLA@MTL: Byron chips in his second of the 1st period
Save of the game
Price made a save on Panthers captain Derek MacKenzie's shorthanded breakaway at 4:02 of the second period.
Video: FLA@MTL: Price denies MacKenzie's shorthanded break
Highlight of the game
Alexander Radulov got his first of two assists in the third period when he set up Pacioretty for a one-timer past Berra from the right side.
Video: FLA@MTL: Pacioretty rips a one-timer on odd-man rush
Unsung performance of the game
In his fourth game since moving from right wing to center, Andrew Shaw won 11-of-14 faceoffs (78.6 percent) for Montreal, which won 35-of-62 faceoffs (56.5 percent).
They said it
"I think it's all about pride. I know for myself, last year when I was in the minors I would have given anything to have a game in the NHL. So knowing that, you've got to come ready to play no matter what." -- defenseman Michael Matheson on the Panthers' final five games of the season
"This building, in my mind, it's the best building in Canada to play in. When you come in to Canada this is the place and it gets rocking and loud, and their team feeds off of it. And our guys just tried to do too much at the wrong time, and it backfired." -- Panthers coach Tom Rowe
"It's always nice to get that first goal accomplished and know that we're in the dance. We've got to keep moving forward, obviously we're not satisfied yet. We've got a few games remaining and we've got to keep building on what we've accomplished over the last few weeks, and keep rounding our game out and keep preparing." -- Canadiens goalie Carey Price
Need to know
Panthers center Aleksander Barkov was scratched because of an upper-body injury. Florida defenseman Jason Demers played his 500th NHL game. ... The Canadiens went 38-38-6 in 2015-16 and finished sixth in the Atlantic with 82 points. Gallagher had a three-point game (two goals, one assist) against the Boston Bruins on Oct. 16, 2014.
Panthers: At the Boston Bruins on Saturday (1 p.m. ET; SN, NESN, FS-F, NHL.TV)
Canadiens: At the Tampa Bay Lightning on Saturday (7 p.m. ET; CITY, TVA Sports, SUN, NHL.TV)
Video: Habs clinch playoff berth with 6-2 win vs. Panthers