The Montreal Canadiens looked the part of Stanley Cup contenders on Monday night, for the first 40 minutes at least.
Andrei Kostitsyn scored twice as the Canadiens stormed out to a six-goal lead and hung on for a 7-5 victory over the visiting Ottawa Senators at the Bell Centre.
Kostitsyn opened the scoring 1:40 into the contest and the Canadiens built up a 7-1 lead through two periods.
The Senators responded with four unanswered goals in the third period, but the deficit was simply too large to overcome.
"We got a little settled down and too relaxed and they picked up their game," Canadiens forward Tom Kostopoulos said. "The combination of the two led to a strong third period for them and a weak one for us.
"We were fortunate that we had a big enough lead to hold onto the game."
Montreal secured a playoff berth with the win, and moved three points up on the Pittsburgh Penguins in the Eastern Conference and seven points ahead of second-place Ottawa in the Northeast Division.
"It is a big credit for all the players here," Canadiens defenceman Francis Bouillon said. "It is a big surprise.
"Nobody was expecting that and we worked pretty hard all season long to be there. Tonight was a great victory for us."
Both Montreal and Pittsburgh have five games remaining, and Ottawa six.
"We want to finish first," Canadiens captain Saku Koivu said. "That is our goal now."
Christopher Higgins, Bouillon, Andrei Markov, rookie Mikhail Grabovski and Kostopoulos had the other goals for the Canadiens (43-24-10), who had lost five of six to Ottawa.
Alex Kovalev had two assists and rookie netminder Carey Price made 31 saves.
"It has taken us seven games to figure it out," said Canadiens forward Bryan Smolinski, a former member of the Senators.
Dany Heatley had two goals and one assist for the Senators (41-28-7).
Martin Lapointe had one goal and one assist, while Antoine Vermette and Jason Spezza had the other goals.
Daniel Alfredsson had three assists, and Randy Robitaille two.
Martin Gerber yielded three goals on 14 shots before being yanked in favour of Ray Emery, who made 14 saves in relief.
"Goaltending has been solid for us," said Alfredsson, Ottawa's captain. "Marty has been really consistent.
"I don't see that as the issue. It is more the breakdowns we have defensively."
Ottawa has lost three of its last four games.
"We have still got some games left," Spezza said. "If we win five of the next six, then we will have some momentum going in.
"It all depends how you look at it. But we know we have to get better."
Slick start for Kostitsyn
Kostitsyn helped stake the Canadiens to a 3-0 lead, sandwiching his 24th and 25th goals of the season around Higgins' 23rd in a lopsided first period.
"We know we cannot give up early goals to teams," Spezza said.
The momentum carried over into the second period as Montreal offset Vermette's early goal with four unanswered goals in eight minutes.
When Price struck Lapointe in the stomach with an errant clearing attempt, he scrambled back in time to stop Lapointe's shot.
However, Vermette potted the rebound for his 19th to make it 3-1 at 9:43.
But Bouillon restored Montreal's three-goal bulge, pinching in from the point to bury Smolinski's backhand pass for his second at 11:29.
The Canadiens continued to apply substantial pressure, and were rewarded when Michael Ryder corralled a rebound and tapped it to Markov, who whisked it beyond the reach of a sprawled Emery for his 16th at 15:04.
Grabovski then snuck between a pair of Senators to redirect a centring pass from rookie Sergei Kostitsyn for his third at the 15:46 mark.
Kostopoulos capped the carnage with his sixth for the Canadiens, a short-handed goal with 46 seconds remaining in the period.
"It was fun," Smolinski said. "We had to tighten it up, and getting those extra goals was huge."
Heatley scored Ottawa's second goal 3:04 into the third period, stuffing the puck inside the left post for his 38th.
Lapointe was credited with cutting the deficit to 7-3 as he was the last Senator to play the puck before it was inadvertently kicked into the net by Canadiens forward Tomas Plekanec.
It was Lapointe's sixth, and was followed by Heatley's 39th and Spezza's 32nd at 9:23 and 18:03, respectively.
"It is no time to panic," Spezza said. "We just have to get things going a little bit."