Canadiens-Maple Leafs Preview
The Montreal Canadiens have clinched a playoff spot after finishing at the bottom of the Eastern Conference last season.
They hope that's just the beginning.
With its best results on the road in 35 years, Montreal looks to continue its roll Saturday night when it visits a Toronto Maple Leafs team that's seeking its first playoff berth in nine seasons.
A conference-worst 31-35-6 last season when their four-year run of playoff appearances ended, the Canadiens (26-9-5) secured a postseason berth - and moved back into the Northeast Division lead - with a 5-1 victory at Buffalo on Thursday. Peter Budaj had to make only 14 saves and P.K. Subban and Andrei Markov each had a goal and an assist for Montreal, which reached 26 wins through 40 games for the first time since opening 27-8-5 in 1978-79.
"We knew what was at stake,'' said Subban, the team leader with 12 points during a 6-2-0 stretch. "Winning's fun. It feels good to win. For the guys that were here last year, obviously, we know what it's like to lose.''
The Canadiens have a chance to run down East-leading Pittsburgh - they're five points behind the Penguins and have a game in hand - but are just one point ahead of Boston in the division race.
"We realize that there's a lot of hockey to be played, and there's more steps coming," coach Michel Therrien said.
The Maple Leafs (22-13-5), fifth in the conference, also have work to do. They're trying to hold off Ottawa, the New York Islanders and a host of other teams as they attempt to end the longest playoff drought in the NHL.
Toronto should have a good chance to do so if Phil Kessel keeps his recently rediscovered scoring touch. The right wing has two goals in each of the last two contests following a nine-game drought without one.
Kessel has team highs of four assists and five points in three games against the Canadiens this season. All of those points, though, came in two victories in Montreal, during which Toronto outscored the Canadiens 8-1.
The Leafs lost 5-2 at home to Montreal on Feb. 27 in the teams' last matchup, their third straight such loss to the Canadiens.
The Maple Leafs are 10-2-3 in their last 15 on home ice, but the Canadiens are 13-4-2 on the road - matching their best record through 19 away games since 1977-78.
Carey Price has been in net each time during the Canadiens' three-game winning streak in Toronto, making 21 saves Feb. 27.
Price is the Habs' No. 1 goaltender, but Budaj is making a strong push for more playing time. He won his sixth straight start Thursday, a day after signing a two-year extension, and has posted a 1.41 GAA in his last seven games overall.
Budaj has yet to face Toronto this season.
If Maple Leafs goaltender James Reimer makes a seventh consecutive start, he'll get his second look at Montreal this season. With 37 saves, he earned his second career shutout of the Canadiens with a 6-0 victory Feb. 9.
Toronto opened the season with a 2-1 win over Montreal on Jan. 19. The teams meet to close their seasons April 27.