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MONTREAL – The Montreal Canadiens are heading back to the playoffs.
Paul Byron scored twice, Brendan Gallagher had a goal and three assists, and the Canadiens beat the Florida Panthers 6-2 on Thursday night to clinch a spot in the postseason.
The Atlantic Division leaders have won three in a row and five of seven. A massive collapse knocked Montreal out of the playoff picture last year.
"That's every team's goal at the start of the year — you just want to get in," Gallagher said. "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."
Tomas Plekanec, Max Pacioretty and Phillip Danault also scored for Montreal (44-24-9). Carey Price made 29 saves for his 36th victory of the season.
"At least now we know we're going to the dance," said coach Claude Julien, who has guided the Canadiens to a 13-5-1 record 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), stopped 27 shots.
"It's a little bittersweet," Matheson said. "It was nice to get a goal in my hometown, 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."
Montreal jumped out a fast start, and Florida never recovered.
Plekanec's line with Byron and Gallagher scored three times in a 5:55 span in the first.
Byron got his 21st goal at 7:24, capitalizing on a failed clearance by Florida. Plekanec doubled Montreal's lead at 10:04, beating Berra from the slot off a centering pass from Gallagher. Byron then got his second of the game, deflecting a sharp pass by Nathan Beaulieu past Berra.
"It just seemed like everything we were touching was going in tonight," Byron said. "A lot of chemistry.
"I love playing with those two guys."
The Canadiens added three more in the third. A lucky bounce led to a 2-on-1 for Alexander Radulov and Pacioretty, who scored his team-leading 35th goal at 3:52. Gallagher made it 5-2 when he deflected Brandon Davidson's shot from the point at 12:55 of the third. Danault finished the scoring at 16:49.
Down 3-0, Florida had a golden opportunity to get back in the game when Pacioretty and Shea Weber took back-to-back penalties, but the Panthers failed to convert on the 5-on-3 that lasted 1:22.
Smith scored for Florida at 10:41 of the second, beating Price with a low wrist shot from the face-off circle. Matheson scored his sixth of the season at 8:45 of the third.
NOTES: G Charlie Lindgren, who was recalled from the St. John's IceCaps on Wednesday, served as Price's backup. ... Florida's Jason Demers played his 500th NHL game. ... Former Montreal Expos outfielder Tim Raines, who will be inducted into baseball's Hall of Fame this summer, dropped the ceremonial first puck.
Panthers: Visit Boston on Saturday.
Canadiens: Visit Tampa Bay on Saturday.