BUFFALO, N.Y. — Peter Budaj stopped 14 shots, and the Montreal Canadiens clinched a playoff berth and regained the Northeast Division lead with a 5-1 win over the Buffalo Sabres on Thursday night.
P.K. Subban and Andrei Markov had a goal and assist each, and Rene Bourque, Alex Galchenyuk and Brendan Gallagher also scored for the Canadiens.
In earning its fourth postseason berth in five years, Montreal is returning to the playoffs after bottoming out last year, when the Canadiens finished last in the Eastern Conference.
Montreal (26-9-5) also jumped back atop the Northeast, one point ahead of Boston, which was beaten 2-1 by the New York Islanders.
Budaj had his shutout bid snapped 6:45 into the third period when Brian Flynn scored a short-handed goal by capping a 2-on-0 break.
Budaj still won his seventh straight and improved to 7-1-1 on the season. He got the start a day after signing a two-year, $2.8 million contract extension.
Flynn's goal was the lone bright spot for the Sabres, who were thoroughly outplayed. The Canadiens jumped to a 4-0 lead after two periods and finished with a 42-15 edge in shots.
Buffalo's playoff hopes continued to dwindle after the Sabres dropped their second straight following a three-game winning streak. With seven games left, Buffalo (16-19-6) is six behind the eighth-place New York Rangers and the postseason cutoff.
Sabres goalie Ryan Miller had little support in front of him. He gave up four goals on 32 shots before being replaced by Jhonas Enroth to start the third period.
The 26 wins are the Canadiens' most through 40 games since the 1978-79 season, when they got off to a 27-8-5 start according to STATS. The Canadiens are also on a tear away from home. They improved to 13-4-2, which matches their best road record through 19 games since 1977-78, according to STATS.
The Canadiens continue to dominate in the first period. They have outscored opponents 37-16 in the opening frame, including the 2-0 lead they built over Buffalo.
Bourque opened the scoring 6:43 in by capping a pretty three-way passing play. Bourque drove up the left wing and fed a pass through the slot to Tomas Plekanec, who immediately dropped it to Brian Gionta in the middle. With Miller looking the other way, Gionta easily slipped it toward the open net, and the puck banked in off Bourque's skate.
Galchenyuk scored less than four minutes later to extend his point streak to five games (three goals, three assists). Michael Ryder outmuscled Buffalo's Mike Weber for the puck behind the Sabres net and slipped a pass through the crease to Galchenyuk, who was parked at the left post. After hitting the side of the net with his first attempt, Galchenyuk had enough time to recover the puck and flip it in.
The Canadiens outshot Buffalo 15-7 in the first period, and had numerous opportunities to blow the game open even further.
Miller stopped Plekanec on a 2-on-1 break in the opening minute, and he was sharp in kicking out his left pad to stop Lars Eller's blast from the left circle.
The Canadiens added two more goals in the second period, in which they outshot Buffalo 17-4.
After Gallagher scored 4:36 in, Markov scored with 2:06 left during a two-man advantage. His shot from the right circle was partially blocked by Flynn, but had enough backspin to float in over Miller.
NOTES: Plekanec earned his 237th assist with Montreal to tie Chris Chelios for 35th on the career list. ... The Sabres, who opened a three-game homestand, will close the season by playing five of their final seven at Buffalo. ... Canadiens C Jeff Halpern played in his 900th NHL game. ... Montreal beat the Sabres for only the third time in 14 meetings (3-5-6), and won in regulation at Buffalo for the first time since a 3-2 victory on Nov. 5, 2010.