The Montreal Canadiens were dead last in the Eastern Conference last season. You want one-year turnarounds? The Habs are exhibit No. 1.
They clinched a playoff spot, something that’s been a forgone conclusion for weeks, with Thursday’s 5-1 cakewalk past the Buffalo Sabres in First Niagara Center.
But they have much more on their agenda. Montreal took over the Northeast Division lead by one point with eight games left; the Habs have just one division title in the last 22 years, winning the Northeast in 2008. And their last Stanley Cup was won in 1993 and the legacy has hasn’t been added to since.
They’re in position to be a contender this time.
“You have to give the coaching staff and whole organization credit,” said defenseman P.K. Subban. “And for [first-year General Manager] Marc Bergevin to come in and put a group together that clinched a playoff spot with [eight] games left is a great accomplishment. It’s been an unbelievable year from top to bottom but we’re not finished yet.”
The Habs were relentless in this one, compiling a 42-15 advantage in shots on goal and giving the Sabres virtually nothing after the first five minutes. They joined the Chicago Blackhawks and Pittsburgh Penguins as the only teams to officially clinch playoff berths in this lockout-shortened season.
“Even though they had a couple chances at the beginning we came out with the jump,” said goaltender Peter Budaj. “Right off the get-go, we showed we were ready to play. That made me more calm and relaxed. I was able to make some saves and then after that, they didn’t have much.”
Subban played a team-high 25:06 and had a game-high six shots on goal on his 14 attempts.
“We played a good game right from the start,” Subban said. “It was one of our best games and a character game when you have the opportunity to clinch a playoff spot. We knew what was at stake.
“We got pucks deep, we were physical and we were on them all game in all three zones. They didn’t have their best game. We did our part.”
Fifteen Montreal players had shots on goal, 10 had points and there were five scorers. One of them was 19-year-old rookie Alex Galchenyuk, the No. 3 overall pick in last June’s draft. Galchenyuk, like Buffalo counterpart Mikhail Grigorenko, was a junior eligible player but has stayed in the NHL all year.
Still, he has struggled at times and has just six goals. But three have come in the last four games after an 18-game drought. Galchenyuk has a five-game point streak and a balanced Montreal attack could get even more dangerous if he stays hot.
“I always try to go play with confidence but when things aren’t going right it’s tough to keep that confidence up,” Galchenyuk said. “As a young player, it can be harder. I’m trying to work hard and do simple plays.”
The loss dropped the Sabres to 3-2 against the Habs and 8-7-2 against the Northeast Division. The season-killing stat, however, is Buffalo’s 2-9-2 record against the Southeast Division that includes Tuesday’s 4-1 loss at Winnipeg. Want some comparisons? The Habs are 11-1 against the Southeast and Boston is 9-1-1.
And there’s this: The Sabres have six losses – five in regulation – to Tampa Bay, Carolina and Florida. Those are the three teams that opened play Thursday in spots 13, 14 and 15 in the East.
“I think everyone rises to the occasion for good teams,” said defenseman Mike Weber. “They’re good teams because they’re always at a high level. We’re focused in getting at that the rest of the season and in the future.
“Look at Pittsburgh, look at Boston and all the good teams in our division. Everyone wants to beat them and brings their best game for the most part. But those teams still win a lot.”
The Habs’ 2-0 lead after the first period Thursday kept together their remarkable streak of success after 20 minutes. Montreal has trailed just three times in 40 games after the first and entered Thursday’s game 14-3-1 when holding a lead.
Montreal has outscored its opponents, 37-16, in the first period this season.
Tyler Myers again led the Sabres in ice time at 25:37. … Thomas Vanek was minus-2 in the first period, dropping to minus-6 in his first four periods after sitting out six games with an upper-body injury. … Buffalo enforcer John Scott was a healthy scratch after playing more than nine minutes in each of the last three games. Luke Adam returned to the lineup. … Interim coach Ron Rolston confirmed backup goalie Jhonas Enroth will play a game this weekend but hasn’t decided which one. The Sabres host Philadelphia here Saturday at 3 p.m. and Tampa on Sunday at 5 p.m.