A dramatic come-from-behind overtime victory got the Montreal Canadiens back atop the Eastern Conference. They hope to stay there while clinching their first division title in 15 seasons on Saturday against the last-place Toronto Maple Leafs.
The Canadiens (44-24-10) lead the Northwest Division by six points over Ottawa with four games remaining. A win on Saturday coupled with a Senators' loss at Boston would secure Montreal's first division crown since winning the Adams Division in 1991-92. The club's last regular-season conference championship came in 1988-89 when the East was known as the Wales Conference.
The Canadiens got closer to both of those achievements on Friday with a 4-3 overtime win at Buffalo. Tomas Plekanec forced the extra period by scoring twice in the final 2:31 of regulation before Christopher Higgins found the net with 1:22 to play in OT.
"It's a huge two points for us," Plekanec said. "We didn't play well, but we showed some character in the end."
The victory not only matched Montreal's season-high four-game winning streak, but also moved it a point clear of Pittsburgh for first place in the conference.
The two teams have four games left, but the Penguins are off until opening a home-and-home set with the New York Rangers on Sunday.
The Canadiens, who last won five in a row from March 17-27 of last season, visit Ottawa on Tuesday before returning home to face Buffalo on Thursday and Toronto (35-33-10) two nights later in the regular-season finale.
Plekanec has been outstanding in the last seven road games, getting eight goals and three assists. He had one of each in the last meeting with the Maple Leafs, a 4-2 home win on Feb. 7.
His assist in that contest came on a goal by Alex Kovalev, the team leader with 33 goals and 79 points. The Russian has three goals and four assists in the last four games. He's been terrific in the last four games against Toronto, netting five goals and assisting on four more, helping the Canadiens to a 3-2-1 advantage in the overall season series.
The Maple Leafs are just looking to end the season on a positive note. They were eliminated from playoff contention for the third straight season Thursday, losing 4-2 at eighth-place Boston to drop a home-and-home set. Toronto fell 6-2 at home Tuesday.
"Obviously, it's real disappointing. We really battled over a month to keep this race going," Leafs center Nik Antropov said. "You can say there is always next year, but three years in a row - it's getting on your nerves and it's not a fun feeling."
The Maple Leafs had hoped to get a lift from the returns of Antropov (knee) and captain Mats Sundin (groin) on Thursday, but each managed only one assist.
Sundin has two goals and five assists in the last six games against Montreal, giving him 32 goals and 80 points in 84 career meetings - his second-highest production in both categories against any club.