MONTREAL – After a season filled with off ice distractions and tumult, a season where the constantly packed Bell Centre was filled with more boos than cheers, the final image the Montreal Canadiens players and coaching staff will have in their home building will be that of a standing ovation.
Immediately following the home team’s 4-1 win against the rival Toronto Maple Leafs on Saturday night, all the players and a legion of injured ones wearing suits along with Randy Cunneyworth's coaching staff went to center ice to acknowledge the fans, and received a warm reception from what was left of the crowd of 21,273 to put an end to a forgettable season.
"It's amazing," said defenseman Josh Gorges. "I've said it all along and I'll continue to say that we have the best fans. It's not easy to play here. When you're not winning and things aren't going well, it's tough. I think that shows the character of this city. It's not easy, but that's what makes it fun to play here. Not everyone's cut out for it, but you understand that these people are passionate about winning. They're not here to just see a hockey game and have some fun; they want to win just as bad as we do. You can see it when they cheer and stand up for us the way they did tonight, and you can see it when we're not putting the effort and they let us know it. So it's great to have a strong finish tonight and to see them excited for us."
That may very well have been Cunneyworth's final hurrah as Canadiens coach, as well.
With the firing of the man who hired him, former general manager Pierre Gauthier, and Canadiens owner Geoff Molson's declaration earlier this season that bilingualism will be a factor for the next head coach, Cunneyworth's future with the team is tenuous, at best.
So having that moment with the fans cheering on his team was greatly appreciated.
"It was obviously nice to go out there and acknowledge the fans and thank them for being so supportive all year," Cunneyworth said. "There certainly were the well-wishers throughout the season when times were difficult. I think that was great. It was a real nice touch."
Cunneyworth took over from Jacques Martin on Dec. 17 and finished with an 18-23-9 record, just five more wins than the team had under Martin (13-12-7). While Cunneyworth said it will be up to the new general manager to decide his fate, he did express how much he enjoyed making his NHL coaching debut in Montreal in spite of the difficult circumstances that surrounded it.
"I've enjoyed being here in Montreal and being a part of this organization," he said.
Tomas Plekanec's goal while killing a 5-on-3 power play set the stage while Erik Cole scored his 35th of the season and Max Pacioretty scored his 33rd for the Canadiens (31-35-16), who still finished last in the Eastern Conference for the first time since the NHL switched to the conference format in 1974-75.
And enforcer Brad Staubitz scored from the lip of his own crease into an empty Toronto net at the other end for his first goal and point of the season at 18:02 of the third. It marked the second straight year that Staubitz scored in his final game of the season.
"I tried to carry that momentum over from last season," Staubitz said tongue-in-cheek. "But I dropped the ball somewhere over the course of the summer."
The victory means the Canadiens finish the 2011-12 season 28th overall in the NHL standings and will pick no worse than fourth in the NHL draft, which will make it the franchise's highest pick since drafting Doug Wickenheiser first overall in 1980.
Dion Phaneuf scored the lone goal for the Maple Leafs (35-37-10), who finished the season on a 7-18-4 slide to drop from sixth in the East on Feb. 6 to 13th in the conference just over two months later.
"The players need to play with more intensity," said coach Randy Carlyle, who went 6-9-3 after taking over for Ron Wilson on March 2. "If there are things within the game where (the players) feel it necessary to be pushed, then the push will come. But it can't just be push, push, push. There's got to be a human side to it at all times."
The loss meant the Maple Leafs finished 26th overall in the standings, giving them an 8.1 percent chance of landing the top pick in the draft. But Carlyle made it clear this is not a position he expects to be in for very long.
"When you've been coaching the number of years like I have, you have all kinds of players," he said. "There are certain traits of strengths and weaknesses, and you want to build on the strengths and hopefully help them improve on their weaknesses. If some of them have that weakness of not committing to what we want, then we're going to do what we have to do to get them on our side."
Cole's 35 goals on the season matched the total for Alex Kovalev during the 2007-08 season, and signing him as a free agent in the offseason could be seen as one of Gauthier's finest moves.
"He's a consummate professional," Gorges said. "We need everyone to play the way he plays the game, with that passion and determination."
Prior to the game, the Canadiens showed a video with several players thanking the fans for their support through a trying season and promising to be better in 2012-13. The video included brief messages in French from P.K. Subban, Gorges, Cole and captain Brian Gionta.
Then, two of Montreal's most consistent performers – Gorges and goaltender Carey Price – were honored. Gorges was awarded the Jacques Beauchamp Trophy – given to the team's unsung hero – while Price received the Molson Cup for garnering the most three star selections over the course of the season.
Price, who missed the final three games with a minor concussion – came out in a cowboy hat to accept the award and received a standing ovation from the crowd.
Peter Budaj, Price's replacement, played perhaps his best game of the season with 30 saves to finish with a 5-7-5 record.
The game got off to a horrible start for the Canadiens, but the Maple Leafs managed to turn that into a blessing for the home team.
Blake Geoffrion took a boarding penalty before Gorges was called for delay of game, giving the Maple Leafs 1:01 of 5-on-3 time at 3:11 of the first period.
Just nine seconds later, Plekanec finished a breakaway by putting one through Ben Scrivens' legs after pouncing on a turnover by Jake Gardiner at the Montreal blue line, making him just the second player in the NHL this season to score while down two men. Pittsburgh's Matt Cooke turned the trick as well on Feb. 18 against the Flyers.
Plekanec became the first Canadiens player to score under those circumstances since Guy Carbonneau in 1983.
Making matters worse, the Leafs didn't get a single shot on goal on the rest of the 5-on-3 power play, or on the subsequent 5-on-4 advantage.
Montreal made it 2-0 when Pacioretty skated down the left side unfettered while the Leafs were on a change and beat Scrivens under the arm at 1:18 of the second.
Phaneuf got Toronto on the board at 0:25 of the third period on a blast from the blue line that got through a crowd to beat Budaj for his 12th of the season, but Cole got that one back at 4:07 when he beat Scrivens high on the glove side.
Pacioretty confirmed after the game that he has accepted an invitation from USA Hockey to play in the IIHF world championships. Plekanec will also be representing the Czech Republic in the tournament.