MONTREAL – No one expected the Montreal Canadiens to be here.
Coming off a last-place finish in the Eastern Conference, simply qualifying for the Stanley Cup Playoffs in a shortened season with a new coach was a challenge few believed the Canadiens would be able to overcome. Not only did they do so, they did in style, winning the Northeast Division and claiming the second seed in the Eastern Conference.
But a five-game loss to the Ottawa Senators in the Eastern Conference Quarterfinals overwhelmed all the good that was accomplished this season with the pain of having a surprisingly good season come to a very abrupt end with a 6-1 loss in Game 5 on Thursday night.
"This one hurts more than ones in the past," defenseman Josh Gorges said in a voice barely more audible than a whisper. "For our young guys – [Brendan Gallagher], [Alex Galchenyuk], [Jarred Tinordi], [Gabriel Dumont] – those guys got their first taste, they saw what it's like, how hard it is. For our other guys – like myself, [Brian Gionta], [Travis Moen], [Michael Ryder] – guys that have been around for a little bit, it's not easy. There's not a lot of time to succeed and get the ultimate goal. It gets harder and harder."
The youth Gorges mentioned showed great signs that the Canadiens are a team on the rise. Gallagher, a Calder Trophy finalist, and Galchenyuk in particular were standouts all season, and neither wilted in the playoffs.
"For their first playoffs they did really good," coach Michel Therrien said. "I've coached a lot of young kids before and sometimes they've got the tendency, because they're so nervous, you don't know what to expect. They could change their game. But those two kids, they haven't changed their game. They continued progressing the way they have all season long. The last month of the season they were a big factor on our team. I was really impressed with the way those kids played."
Both Gallagher and Galchenyuk were devastated in the dressing room; Gallagher said it was precisely because of what Gorges was taking about – that the veteran players on this team saw this season as an opportunity that doesn't come around every year.
"The older guys were saying 'you don't get too many chances at this,' so the younger guys wanted to help them out," Gallagher said. "It's tough right now that the season ended today."
Throughout the series, the Canadiens said they were happy with how they were playing, that if they continued playing the same way they would eventually solve Senators goalie Craig Anderson and find a way to win the series.
They did continue to play the same way right through to Thursday night -- and still lost.
"It's hard to really accept that because at the end of the day it doesn't matter, let's be honest," Gorges said. "We did play well for a lot of the series, but that just goes to show that in the playoffs, one shift, one period, that's the difference.
"That's something that we're going to have to realize next year."
Except as opposed to the end of last season, next year is looking rather bright for the Montreal Canadiens.
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