MONTREAL — The Montreal Canadiens are back in the playoffs.
After a massive collapse left them out of the NHL post-season last year, the Canadiens clinched a playoff spot with a 6-2 blowout victory over the injury-struck Florida Panthers on Thursday night.
Brendan Gallagher led the way with his first four-point game for the Canadiens (44-24-9).
"That's every team's goal at the start of the year — you just want to get in," said Gallagher. "Everyone knows that anything can happen from there.
"We all had the mindset that we were going to use last year as a learning experience. It was disappointing and really frustrating for the players that were in here. There were times this year where we had to look back on what we went through last year and use those learning curves that we went through. We're definitely stronger for it."
Gallagher had a goal and three assists while linemate Paul Byron had two goals and centre Tomas Plekanec had a goal and a helper. Max Pacioretty and Phillip Danault also scored, while Carey Price made 29 saves for his 36th victory of the season.
The Canadiens will play in the post-season for the fourth time in the past five years and eighth time in the last decade. They have five regular-season games left to try to maintain their hold on first place in the Atlantic Division, beginning Saturday night in Tampa.
"At least now we know we're going to the dance," said coach Claude Julien, whose team is 13-5-1 since he replaced Michel Therrien on Feb. 14.
Reilly Smith and Montreal native Michael Matheson scored for the Panthers (33-33-11), who were eliminated from playoff contention. Reto Berra, replacing injured goalies James Reimer (upper body) and Roberto Luongo (lower body), made 27 saves.
"It's a little bittersweet," said Matheson. "It was nice to get a goal in my home town, but looking back at the game it's one I'd like to forget and I'm sure my teammates feel the same way. We didn't come ready to play."
Plekanec's line scored three times in a 5:55 span in the first as the Canadiens quickly jumped into the lead.
Byron got the first at 7:24, capitalizing on a failed clearance by Florida to score his 21st goal of the season. Plekanec beat Berra from the slot on a centring pass from Gallagher at 10:04 and Byron got his second of the game three minutes later, deflecting a sharp pass by Nathan Beaulieu.
"It just seemed like everything we were touching was going in tonight," said Byron. "A lot of chemistry.
"I love playing with those two guys."
A lucky bounce led to a 2-on-1 for Alexander Radulov and Pacioretty, who scored his team-leading 35th goal at 3:52 of the third. Gallagher deflected Brandon Davidson's shot at 12:55 and Danault added one at 16:49.
Smith scored for Florida at 10:41 of the second, beating Price five-hole with a low wrister from the face-off circle, and Matheson scored 8:45 of the third.
Notes: Goalie Charlie Lindgren was recalled from the St. John's IceCaps on Wednesday to replace injured Al Montoya as Price's backup. Defenceman Jordie Benn sat out with an upper-body injury and is listed as day to day. . . Florida's Jason Demers played his 500th NHL game and went minus-5 … Montreal Expos Hall of Famer Tim Raines dropped the ceremonial first puck.
Bill Beacon, The Canadian Press
Note to readers: This is a corrected story. A previous version said Berra made 26 saves instead of 27 and incorrectly stated the time of Matheson's goal.