Buffalo Sabres' right winger Patrick Kaleta (36) is punched by Montreal Canadiens' left winger Brandon Prust (8) during a fight in the first period of an NHL hockey game in Buffalo, N.Y., Thursday, April 11, 2013. (AP Photo/Gary Wiepert)
BUFFALO, N.Y. - From worst one year, to the playoffs the next, the Montreal Canadiens are Hab-nots no longer.
Peter Budaj stopped 14 shots, and P.K. Subban and Andrei Markov had a goal and assist each in the Canadiens' dominating 5-1 win over the Buffalo Sabres that clinched a playoff berth on Thursday night.
The Habs became the second team in the Eastern Conference to secure a post-season berth. They did it a year after they finished last in the East. Montreal also moved back atop the Northeast Division, one point ahead of Boston, which was beaten 2-1 by the New York Islanders.
"It was a character game for us. We knew what was at stake," Subban said. "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."
Montreal jumped to a 2-0 lead after 20 minutes, and doubled it after two periods. Budaj lost his shutout bid on Brian Flynn's short-handed goal 6:45 into the third period.
That didn't stop the numerous Canadiens jersey-clad fans on hand from starting an "Ole, Ole, Ole!" celebration with 3 minutes left.
"I'm very thankful to be part of this team," said Budaj, whose seventh consecutive victory came a day after he signed a $2.8 million contract extension. "We outshot them. We outplayed them. I don't want to take anything away from Buffalo, but we played a much better game."
The Sabres didn't need to be reminded of that in a game in which they were outshot 42-15 and outplayed for lengthy stretches.
Sabres defenceman Tyler Myers described his team's effort as "probably the most embarrassing game I've been a part of."
While Buffalo (16-19-6) slipped closer to missing the playoffs for a second straight season, Montreal (26-9-5) continued what has been a dominating roll through a lockout-shortened season.
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.
Subban called it unfair to compare this year's squad to the franchise's Hall of Fame-laden teams of the 1970s.
"I think we're just worried about creating our own identity," Subban said. "We're not finished. We have a lot to accomplish here."
Rene Bourque and rookie Alex Galchenyuk scored 3:44 apart to put the Canadiens up 2-0 by 10:27 of the first period. Brendan Gallagher and Markov scored during the second period in which Montreal held a 17-4 edge in shots. Subban added a power-play goal with 2:41 left.
Bourque scored on a 3-on-1 break. Galchenyuk's goal came after he had time to take two whacks at the puck to the left of the net. Gallagher scored when he was allowed to carry the puck across the top of the crease untouched and wrap it around sprawling goalie Ryan Miller. Markov scored during a two-man advantage.
The game was so lopsided that Sabres interim coach Ron Rolston pulled Miller after he faced 32 shots through two periods.
"He played well. There was nothing he could do," Rolston said, of Miller. "We didn't have enough effort. We didn't have enough going. We had too many passengers."
It is the Canadiens who are riding high following an off-season in which Marc Bergevin took over as general manager, and Michel Therrien got his second shot coaching Montreal following a 10-year absence.
"We're proud about making the playoffs. It's a good accomplishment," Therrien said. "We realize that there's a lot of hockey to be played, and there's more steps coming."
NOTES: Tomas 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.