Montreal Canadiens\' Andrei Markov, left, from Russia, celebrates with teammates after scoring the seventh goal against the Ottawa Senators\' during second-period NHL hockey action in Montreal, Monday. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Ryan Remiorz
MONTREAL - Here's unfamiliar territory for the Montreal Canadiens - safely in a playoff spot with five games left in the regular season.
"I've been here for eight years and I've never seen this before," defenceman Francis Bouillon said Wednesday. "It was always the last game that determined if we were going to make it or not.
"This year was a great season. We started well. We played well all year. It's great to see that. But we still have some big games to play, like our next game (Friday night) against Buffalo. They're still fighting for the playoffs, so it won't be easy."
The Canadiens clinched a playoff berth Monday with a 7-5 win over the Ottawa Senators. Montreal needs three more wins to take first place in the Northeast Division, which would secure a top-two seeding for the playoffs. But they're aiming higher - first place in the Eastern Conference.
"Now we have our fate in our own hands," said coach Guy Carbonneau. "If we win our games, we'll finish first. That will give us home-ice advantage to the final. We just need to work hard for five games."
After the game in Buffalo, the Canadiens play in Toronto on Saturday and in Ottawa on Tuesday, then end the season with home games against the Sabres and Leafs.
Last season, the Canadiens needed to win their final regular season game just to get into the playoffs, but they lost in Toronto and ended up 10th, missing the playoffs for a fifth time in an eight-year span.
This season, the Canadiens started strong (10-4-3), had a brief dip (4-7-2), and have gone 29-13-5 since then. Their longest losing streak along the way was three straight games in early January.
Now that the pressure of getting into the post-season has lifted, Carbonneau hopes to give extra rest to some veterans. He said stars like Saku Koivu and Alex Kovalev don't like missing games, so he will make some practices and game-day skates optional for them.
He will also try to work forward Mathieu Dandenault and defenceman Patrice Brisebois into the lineup to keep others fresh. Both players have been healthy scratches of late. The team had a day off Tuesday and had only off-ice training on Wednesday.
It is an unexpected luxury for a team that, after failing to land a big-ticket scorer in the off-season, was predicted by most pundits to miss the playoffs again.
"I've taken a lot of pride in making people wrong," said Carbonneau. "But a few things had to happen.
"We haven't had many injuries. Most of our players have been consistent and our goalies have been solid. We haven't had a slump. We knew we had a better team than people thought."
Carbonneau believes the Canadiens would have made the playoffs last season had his team not been rocked by a virus that weakened nearly every player from late December through January. This season, any player who felt sick was kept away from teammates as much as possible. Only a few missed any games due to illness.
The virus struck in the Christmas period, which for years has coincided with a slump, particularly games on Dec. 23, which they almost never win.
They were run out of the rink again last Dec. 23 in Dallas, but bounced back with a strong road trip and never looked back.
"This year, we had the same start, but going into that holiday season everyone was nervous," he said. "Coming out of that well was a big thing."
The Canadiens and Sabres are 3-3 in six meetings this season, with Montreal taking their last game 6-2 in Buffalo on Feb. 29.
The Sabres finished tied for first overall with Detroit last season, but now find themselves scrambling for a playoff spot, just as Montreal did nearly every year since their last Stanley Cup triumph in 1993.
Carbonneau cautioned that fortunes can change quickly for clubs in the new NHL.
"Fans and reporters and everyone around hockey should get used to this because it's going to happen more often than you think," he said. "With injuries and with the (salary) cap now, it's hard to replace players.
"We'll see teams that finish first or who win the Cup that won't make the playoffs the next year."
The Canadiens are without defenceman Mike Komisarek for the rest of the regular season with what the team calls a lower-body injury, but hope to have him back for the start of the playoffs. Left-winger Guillaume Latendresse, who missed the last two games with neck spasms, is to resume skating Thursday and may be able to play in Buffalo.
When all other questions dried up, Carbonneau was asked about the multi-coloured tie he wore for the game against Ottawa, which drew almost as much comment as the game.
"That was my birthday gift from my wife," he said with laugh. "I had more questions about my tie than anything.
"That one was good, but wait and see the one in the playoffs. I got a special one. I might have to wear it in the first game of the playoffs."