Carolina Hurricanes captain Eric Staal netted a hat trick and assisted on both of Chad LaRose's goals in a 5-2 home victory that prevented the Montreal Canadiens from entering the Eastern Conference playoffs.
Montreal (39-33-9) came into the game needing just one point to reach the playoffs for a third consecutive season. But the Canadiens came out uninspired and were only in the game early due to the strong play of goalie Jaroslav Halak, who finished with 28 saves.
The Canadiens never led in the game, but Brian Gionta and Marc-Andre Bergeron brought them to within a goal.
"We just didn't play a good team game," Canadiens coach Jacques Martin said.
Montreal's playoff hopes could in part be determined by their final game, a Hockey Night in Canada encounter on Saturday at home against the Toronto Maple Leafs (CBC, CBCSports.ca, 7 p.m. ET). The Canadiens were denied a playoff spot in a similar scenario in Toronto in 2006.
The Canadiens could back into the playoffs on Friday, however, should Philadelphia defeat the New York Rangers.
Carolina (35-36-10) will not make the playoffs after reaching the Eastern Conference final last season, but has finished the season strongly. The Hurricanes are 20-8-3 in their last 31, closing their regular season in Boston on Saturday afternoon.
"Any time you can score three goals in a game, it's pretty cool. And it's not easy," Staal said. "You've got to have the right things happen for you. You've got to have the right guys playing with you, making great plays. That was the case tonight."
Jamie McBain of the Hurricanes assisted on two of the goals, with goalie Cam Ward stopping 30 shots in net.
Carolina took a penalty just 11 seconds into the game but Ward stood firm on Benoit Pouliot's chance from the doorstep.
Halak denied Sergei Samsonov on two great chances just minutes apart, using his pad and glove to deny the Russian.
Brandon Sutter got a clean chance on Montreal's net on a two-on-one but had little room to beat Halak on the short side.
Both clubs had great chances on an exciting sequence with five minutes left in the first. Travis Moen shot right at Ward's pad with a half-empty net, with Carolina turning the puck up ice to set up another strong bid from Sutter.
"I didn't like our start. I didn't think we played well in the beginning of the game, became a little bit too passive, I thought," left wing Mike Cammalleri said. "Then we tried to pour it on, but too little, too late, and we weren't able to find goals."
Carolina forced a Montreal turnover to set up the game's first goal early in the second period. Chad LaRose drove down the ice and forced Halak to come up with a big save, but Staal was in prime position to bury the rebound.
Carolina made it 2-0 less than five minutes into the middle period. Tom Kostopoulos dove to sweep-check Gionta to start the sequence that led to LaRose scoring on the breakaway, finding a home for his backhander while getting upended on the play.
The Canadiens called a timeout, with coach Martin for once losing his placid mien.
Cammalleri's bid to cut the lead in half was denied by Ward, but Gionta got Montreal on the board by poking a backhander through Ward's pads at 11:21 of the period.
Staal put the Hurricanes up 3-1 at 2:42 of the third, but Bergeron fired a one-timer to reply just 21 seconds later.
Cammalleri fanned on a chance by the side of the net at the six-minute mark, and Montreal would not get any closer.
Erik Cole had a chance to put the Hurricanes up by two goals late in the period but Halak made a pad save.
Carolina kept coming, however, with LaRose potting his 11th on a wrister just over two minutes later. Staal would complete his hat trick into Montreal's empty net.
"It was a good night, and it ended right — hats on the ice," LaRose said.
The Hurricanes finished 2-1-1 against Montreal, with the Canadiens posting a 2-2 record in the season series.