The Canadiens are returning to the Stanley Cup playoffs for the third consecutive year after beating the visiting Florida Panthers 3-2 in overtime on Saturday, but their sights are already set on the next big objective: finishing first in the Eastern Conference.
"I'm pretty sure we knew we were going to be in the playoffs by this time of the year," said Alex Galchenyuk, who scored his first goal in 12 games on Saturday. "It's nice to have, but we knew we were up there.
"Getting home-ice advantage is huge for us. It's going to be big for us in the playoffs and that's what we're working on."
With six games remaining in the season, the Habs are top of the East with 102 points. The New York Rangers (101 points) and Tampa Bay Lightning (99 points) are hot on their heels.
"At the end of the day, we need to get momentum going into the playoffs," said Max Pacioretty, who scored the overtime winner versus the Panthers. "That's our goal right now. It's a good step in the right direction but we know we have work to do."
With the score tied 2-2, a wide-open Pacioretty took a cross-crease pass from David Desharnais on the power play for the winner at 2:59 of overtime.
Galchenyuk and Lars Eller scored for the Canadiens (47-21-8) in regulation. Carey Price stopped 21 shots for his 41st win of the season.
Roberto Luongo made 21 saves in defeat for the Panthers (34-26-15).
Near the end of a largely uneventful first period, defenceman Greg Pateryn put a spring in the Canadiens' step as he levelled Florida's Jimmy Hayes with an emphatic hip check in front of the players' bench. Hayes took a penalty for unsportsmanlike conduct on the play.
"I don't think it was dirty in any way," said Pateryn, who had five hits on the night. "He wasn't happy with it and thought there should have been a penalty, but he overreacted."
As the penalty expired, Eller jumped on a loose puck to Luongo's left and buried his first goal in seven games at 17:37. Jeff Petry got an assist on the goal — his first point with Montreal.
"It worked in our favour," said Pateryn of his hip check on Hayes. "Getting a hit like that gets you in the game."
Aleksander Barkov scored his first of two goals for Florida at 6:09 of the second, and the 19-year-old added his second seven minutes later for the Panthers' first power-play goal in their last seven games. Jonathan Huberdeau got the primary assist on both goals.
Montreal put an end to its own power-play woes less than two minutes later when Galchenyuk tied the game at two, beating Luongo for his 20th of the year.
Brendan Gallagher came inches from giving the Canadiens the 3-2 lead with three minutes on the clock in the third, but Luongo made an acrobatic save to keep the puck from crossing the goal-line.
"Lu was great in all areas," said Florida defenceman Brian Campbell. "Obviously it was a highlight reel save from him. He's there to protect us and save us and he definitely gave us a chance."
The overtime point kept the Panthers' own playoff hopes alive. Florida is four points from the final wild-card spot in the East.
Notes: Devante Smith-Pelley and Manny Malhotra were healthy scratches. … Brian Flynn dressed for the first time in six games. … P.K. Subban played his 200th consecutive game. He last missed a match on Jan. 30, 2013. … Barkov recorded the first multi-goal game of his career. … Alexei Emelin had five blocked shots. … Montreal finished 2-for-4 on the power play.Suggest a correction