BUFFALO — At this time last year, the Canadiens had packed their bags and had an early start on their vacation.
But coach Michel Therrien said this year’s version is looking forward to playing a lot more hockey after clinching a playoff spot Thursday night with a 5-1 win over the Buffalo Sabres.
“We’re proud to make the playoffs,” Therrien said after his team dominated a listless Buffalo side.
Therrien said the Canadiens went into the season with the expectation that they would be in a group of teams battling for a playoff spot, but they have exceeded those expectations. The win here assured them of a playoff spot with eight games remaining in the regular season and the Canadiens also reclaimed first place in the Northeast Division.
“It’s not easy to make the playoffs, there are good teams that don’t make the playoffs,” Therrien said. “It’s a good accomplishment, but it’s only the first step. We realize there’s a lot of hockey to be played and there are more steps coming.”
While the Sabres offered only token opposition in what should have been a do-or-die game in their own playoff hunt, there were lots of reasons for Therrien to feel good about his team.
For starters, there was the balanced scoring he was looking for when he tweaked his lines earlier in the week. Five different players scored goals and each of the top three lines produced a goal.
“That was the purpose when we changed our lines a little bit,” Therrien said. “We wanted to have balance. When you’re talking about a team win, that’s what you saw tonight. Everybody contributed. Everyone has an important role.”
“The offence was good, the defence was good and Peter was good when he had to be,” Therrien added.
Backup goaltender Peter Budaj and celebrated the two-year contract extension he received Wednesday by posting his seventh consecutive win. He only faced 15 shots, but he set the tone for the game by making his toughest early in the game when the score was 0-0.
“We set ourselves a goal of making the playoffs at the beginning of the season and we accomplished that, but we have still have a ways to go,” Budaj said. “It’s a credit to the guys when you consider where we came from last season.
“We came back after not playing very well the other night against Washington and, not to take anything away from Buffalo, we dominated them,” Budaj added.
That’s an understatement. The Canadiens outshot the home team 42-15, won 58 per cent of the faceoffs and even won both of the fights in the game with Brandon Prust and Francis Bouillon notching decisions over Patrick Kaleta and Steve Ott.
The fourth-best power play in the NHL produced goals from P.K. Subban and Andrei Markov, who are 1-2 in the league in power-play points.
“This was a character win,” Subban said. “Any time you have a chance to clinch a playoff spot, you have to take it. Buffalo didn’t play its game but we dominated in all three zones.”
An improved penalty-killing unit has been one of Therrien’s priorities and the Canadiens haven’t given up a power-play goal in the past seven games. They’ve made it easy for themselves by staying out of the box. They killed two penalties here and have only been short-handed four times in the last three games.
“We want to stay out of the box as much as we can,” Therrien said. “But we’ve done a better job with the addition of Jeff Halpern and Brandon Prust coming back from an injury to give us more experience. We approached these three weeks when we said we weren’t satisfied, but we had time to get better. We had meetings and looked at video and the guys took their roles with a lot of pride.”
Therrien also praised rookies Alex Galchenyuk and Brendan Gallagher, who scored a goal.
“We got two young kids out there and we gave them big roles,” Therrien said. “Gallagher has been strong since beginning and hasn’t changed. Galchenyuk had a good start and then it was hard for a while but the last five or six games he’s been one of our best forwards.”
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