BUFFALO, N.Y. -- One year after finishing with the worst record in the Eastern Conference, the Montreal Canadiens are heading back to the playoffs.
And they appear to be hitting their stride at the perfect time.
The Canadiens clinched a playoff spot Thursday night with an emphatic 5-1 win over the Buffalo Sabres at the First Niagara Center. The Canadiens dominated the Sabres in all aspects of the game, demonstrating how far they've come in one year.
"We're proud about making the playoffs," Canadiens coach Michel Therrien said. "It's a good accomplishment. Honestly, we knew when we started the season we were going to be part of a group that was going to battle to make the playoffs and it's not easy to make the playoffs. ... It's a good accomplishment, but that's only a first step. That's the way we see it. And this is the way those guys see it, too. And we realize that there's a lot of hockey to be played and there's more steps coming.
Rene Bourque, Alex Galchenyuk, Brendan Gallagher, Andrei Markov and P.K. Subban scored for the Canadiens, who improved to 26-9-5. Peter Budaj had 14 saves.
In addition to clinching a playoff spot, the Canadiens jumped ahead of the Boston Bruins for first place in the Northeast Division with 57 points.
"It's been an unbelievable year from top to bottom, it's a huge accomplishment for us," Subban said. "But we're not finished, we have a lot to accomplish here and hopefully we can get home ice Saturday."
Buffalo's late playoff surge is all but over with the Sabres falling to 16-19-6. Buffalo is six points out of the final playoff spot in the East with seven games remaining, and the Sabres were left searching for answers yet again after their worst performance of the season.
"We didn't play well," Sabres interim coach Ron Rolston said. "The other team did. That was it. We got outworked and we didn't play very well. We didn't have enough effort. We didn't have enough going. We had too many passengers tonight."
Ryan Miller had 28 saves for the Sabres before giving way to Jhonas Enroth at the start of the third period. Enroth had nine saves. Brian Flynn scored Buffalo's only goal.
"It was the worst effort the Buffalo Sabres have put on the ice since I've been a part of the team," Buffalo defenseman Tyler Myers said. "It wasn't a good feeling."
"We got our butts kicked," Miller said.
The Canadiens jumped out to a 2-0 lead after a dominant first period in which they outshot the Sabres 15-7.
Montreal's first goal came at 6:43 in the first on Rene Bourque's sixth goal of the season. Brian Gionta originally received credit for finishing a 3-on-1 rush, but the goal was later credited to Bourque after Gionta's shot deflected off Bourque's skate.
The Canadiens took a 2-0 lead at 9:33 on Galchenyuk's sixth goal of the season. Galchenyuk put home a rebound in front of the Buffalo net after Miller stopped Michael Ryder's backhand shot.
Montreal increased its lead to 3-0 at 4:36 of the second period. Gallagher collected a rebound in front of the Buffalo net and wrapped it around Miller's left pad for his 12th goal of the season.
Andrei Markov's power play blast from the point made it 4-0 with 2:06 remaining in the second period. Markov's shot deflected off Sabres forward Brian Flynn and over Miller.
Buffalo's Brian Flynn ended Budaj's shutout 6:45 into the third period with a shorthanded goal.
Subban made it 5-1 on the power play with 2:41 remaining, capping a tremendous all-around victory for the Canadiens.
"I thought that this was one of our best games," Subban said. "It was a character game for us, we knew what was at stake. When you have an opportunity to clinch a playoff spot, you want to come out and have the right start. I thought that we got pucks deep, we were physical, we were all over the game. In all three zones I thought we dominated. They didn't have their best game tonight but I thought we did our part."
NOTES: Montreal forward Jeff Halpern played in his 900th NHL game. The 13-year veteran has also played for the Washington Capitals, Dallas Stars, Tampa Bay Lightning, Los Angeles Kings and New York Rangers. ... Ville Leino (upper body) and John Scott were scratched by the Sabres. ... Tomas Kaberle, Gabriel Dumont, Mike Blunden, Ryan White, Yannick Weber and Alexei Emelin were scratched by the Canadiens. ... This was the fifth and final meeting between the Sabres and Canadiens this season. ... This was the 258th game all-time between Buffalo and Montreal. Buffalo leads the series with a 119-102-37 record.