MONTREAL - Montreal's veteran checking line sent a message: The Canadiens are serious about finishing first in the NHL Eastern Conference.
Bryan Smolinski got two goals while linemates Steve Begin and Tom Kostopoulos checked and crashed the desperate Buffalo Sabres from their first shift to their last en route to a 3-1 Montreal victory on Monday night.
Christopher Higgins also had a goal as the Canadiens (46-25-10) drew even with the idle Pittsburgh Penguins in first place in the Eastern Conference, each with 102 points and each with one game left to play. The Penguins hold the tiebreaker because they have one more win than Montreal.
The Canadiens end the regular season Saturday night at home against Toronto, while the Penguins travel to Philadelphia on Sunday.
"It gives us a chance to finish first," said Montreal coach Guy Carbonneau. "We don't know what will happen on Sunday, but if we win on Saturday, it will force Pittsburgh to play their best players."
Trailing 3-0, the Sabres pulled goalie Ryan Miller for an extra attacker during a power play midway through the third period. The desperate plan led to Ales Kotalik's goal, the lone marker for Buffalo (38-31-12).
The Sabres became only the third team in NHL history to miss the playoffs one year after finishing first overall in the league. The 1993 New York Rangers and the 1970 Canadiens are the others. Buffalo last missed the post-season in 2003-04.
"Even if we won, we would have still needed help (to make the playoffs)," said dejected Sabre Jason Pominville. "But we left everything on the table."
Carey Price, who earned a 3-0 shutout in Ottawa on Tuesday and was named NHL rookie of the month for March, made 27 saves, including 13 in the third period. He is now 11-3 since taking over the starting job when veteran goalie Cristobal Huet was traded to Washington on Feb. 26.
There was little he could do on the Kotalik goal.
"It was a screen shot," said Price. "I knew it went to the point, but I didn't see him shoot it."
The Sabres had been on a desperate run for a playoff spot of late, but were outhustled and outskated by the Canadiens, who had stolen two points in Buffalo last week with two late regulation goals and another in overtime for a 4-3 win.
The Canadiens clinched a playoff spot last week and clinched first place in the Northeast Division on Tuesday, but still want first place in the conference.
"What we're trying to do this week is, because we've made the playoffs, to keep up our concentration and keep doing the good things that got us here," said Carbonneau.
The tone was set early by the Smolinski trio.
"I thought our line played well, but all four lines did," said Kostopoulos. "Smolinski brings that veteran status and Begin works his butt off all night.
"We're going after first in our conference. We're not looking ahead to the playoffs yet. We want to win that last game against Toronto and then see what happens."
The line has had few chances to play together this season because one or another of the three has been out with injuries.
"It's the little things in this game that make you happy," said Smolinski, 36, who signed a one-year deal as a free agent last summer. "The goals come, but the little things, like winning a faceoff or blocking a shot and sacrificing your body is what it's all about."
Montreal was on the power play when Higgins tipped in Mark Streit's point shot 11:28 into the game for his 25th goal and 50th point of the season.
Steve Begin banked a pass off the side of the net for Smolinski to beat Ryan Miller with a wrist shot only 40 seconds later.
A Buffalo clearing attempt went straight to Smolinski in the slot for his eighth goal of the season 14:28 into the second frame.
Notes - Although he's been cleared to play, veteran defenceman Teppo Numminen was not dressed for the Sabres. Dmitri Kalinin sat out an 11th game, but Jaroslav Spacek returned after 10 games out injured.. . Forward Matt D'Agostini, called up from Hamilton on Wednesday with Greg Stewart, played his first NHL game in place of Michael Ryder, who is out with a leg injury. Mikhail Grabovski sat out with the flu. Former defence great Vyacheslav Fetisov, now sports minister of Russia, watched from the pressbox with a group from the World Anti-Doping Agency.