MONTREAL - The countdown is on. The 16 teams vying for the Stanley Cup will soon begin their quest for hockey's Holy Grail. When the Hurricanes and Canadiens square off in the opening round, team captains Saku Koivu and Rod Brind'Amour will also get to settle some unfinished business, beginning Saturday night in Carolina.
Koivu is no stranger to Brind'Amour or the Hurricanes. The pair met up in the second round of the 2002 playoffs. After upending the first-seeded Bruins, the Canadiens then had the Hurricanes on the ropes, only to see Carolina wiggle off the hook and win the series in six games.
While four years have gone by and both dressing rooms have undergone significant changes since then, Koivu has not forgotten the series that got away.
"That was a long time ago and we're both different teams now," admitted Koivu, before proving that the memory of that tough defeat still lingers. "We were up 2-1 in the series and 3-0 in Game 4 and then lost the game in overtime. Then there was only one team in that series the rest of the way. We can definitely learn from that."
With a franchise record 51 wins and 112 points, the second-seeded Hurricanes may be favored over the Canadiens, but you wouldn't know it by listening to Brind'Amour.
"Once the playoffs begin, the regular season is forgotten," shrugged Brind'Amour. "We didn't finish the season with the kind of momentum we would've liked to and we know we have our work cut out for us.
"It's really wide-open again this year and let's not forget that not too many people predicted the Flames and Lightning ending up in the Stanley Cup final two years ago."
As one of the teams that turned it up a notch in the final leg of the season, including an eight-game winning streak, the Canadiens are already in playoff mode.
"We fought so hard to get here since the Olympic break, it's like we've been in the playoffs since March," said Koivu. "So having to battle the way we did down the stretch also forced us to keep our focus and we can hopefully carry over some of that momentum into the playoffs. Teams like Carolina and Ottawa did get a chance to rest and prepare so we will have to be ready."
According to Koivu, Montreal's late-season surge into playoff spot contention was no accident.
"Our defensive play has improved and so has our consistency," said Koivu. "But we're here right now because of our goaltending and Huey is a big reason for that. He surprised a lot of people this year, even us, with the way he worked his way back from knee surgery.
"For us to be as successful, we need Huey and Aebischer to be playing the way they've been over the last month, month and a half, " added Koivu about Montreal's enviable one-two punch in net. "I think for us it's a good situation. We have two great goaltenders that we can put in there at any time."
After pulling the rug from under highly seeded teams in each of their last two playoff appearances, the Canadiens and their captain will look turn the tables on the Hurricanes this time around.
Manny Almela is a writer for canadiens.com