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Looking to the future

The Canadiens had their final media op in Brossard on Monday

by Dan Braverman @canadiensMTL / canadiens.com

BROSSARD - The Canadiens were at the Bell Sports Complex on Monday to close out the 2016-17 season with exit interviews and their final media op of the year.

While the sting of their first-round exit at the hands of the New York Rangers on Saturday still lingered, the players were also able to reflect on good team chemistry, a solid finish at the top of the division, and what promises to be great things to come in the future. It's enough to make any impending free agent want to stick around.

"My first option is going to be Montreal, and I'd like to stay here. I've always been here, and I'd most probably like to finish my career here. We'll see what happens over the summer," expressed Andrei Markov, who finished the season with 36 points in 62 tilts in his 16th NHL campaign. "My family likes the city, and I love the city. My priority is to finish here and to play here."

The veteran blue-liner's teammates would love to see him play in Montreal for as long as he can, citing his work ethic and conditioning as reasons for his longevity. They were also pulling for the return of a fellow Russian pending-unrestricted free agent in Alexander Radulov -- who scored 18 goals and 54 points on the season and led the Canadiens in playoff scoring.

"I really enjoyed playing with Radu. He was a great teammate. As a linemate, I couldn't ask for anything more. He was working very hard, making great plays, and was able to help me put the puck in the net, especially early on when it wasn't going my way," praised Max Pacioretty, who, along with Phillip Danault, spent much of the year on a line with the energetic forward, which helped the Habs captain match his career-best output with 67 points. "If anyone ever asks about Radu, we love playing with him and we hope they work something out. He was a big part of our team this year and we want him back."

Video: Max Pacioretty's end of season review

Radulov and Pacioretty's middle man for the majority of the season, Danault was one of many bright spots on the Canadiens' roster this year, having suited up for all 82 games and finishing with a career-high 40 points on the year. 

"I came a long way; I started as a winger on the fourth line. Max and Radu were really amazing for me. They're two great players who showed me the way," stressed Danault, who earned the 2016-17 Jacques Beauchamp-Molson Trophy as the team's unsung hero. "It was an unforgettable experience. I'm going to keep it in my toolbox and use it down the road. It's a really big experience for me as a player."

Paul Byron also turned heads with a career-year in his second season in Montreal, his 22 goals doubling his previous career high achieved last year, and his plus-21 rating tops on the team.

"It was a really good season, lots of opportunities for me and it all went well. My teammates did some great work and I'm happy I got to have this experience and success. I know we have to be even better next year," articulated the Ottawa, ON native.

Artturi Lehkonen was another young player to emerge as a force in 2016-17, scoring 18 goals in a 73-game rookie campaign and adding two more markers in the playoffs. The Finnish forward's transition to the NHL ranks was seamless, helped by some key mentorship he received from the more experienced players in the room.

"It was a lot to learn, for sure, but the guys we have on the team took me in from the beginning of the season. They showed me how things are done, and that helped me a lot along the way," explained Lehkonen, who finished second on the team in playoff points with four. "The longer the season went on and the more games I got under me, the better I got."

Still, despite all the positives, the Habs couldn't ignore their disappointment that their springtime fun was cut short by the Rangers. After missing the playoffs last season, the Canadiens bounced back in 2016-17, winning the Atlantic division before kicking off what they had hoped would be a deep postseason run.

"During the regular season, we felt really strongly about our chances. And still, as it's started to sink in, we feel that we could've won that series and it's a tough pill to swallow," lamented Pacioretty. "There are things that we have to learn from and get better from. I feel like the process is that we have the right mindset, that we have to work hard until the end, and it could've gone in our favor."

Veteran defenseman Shea Weber agreed with his captain, but also pointed out that a red-hot performance from New York netminder Henrik Lundqvist played a part in the Habs' defeat.

"He played great. He made the saves he needed to make, and obviously he was hot. It's tough sometimes, you run into a hot goaltender, but obviously you want to create more. You can sit back and say 'I should have done this, I should have done that,' but we didn't get it done. We couldn't find a way to get pucks by him, so credit to him and his team, obviously that's why they're moving forward," said Weber, who patrolled the blue line for a mammoth average of 27:58 in six playoff appearances, notching a goal and two assists in the process.

 Video: MTL@NYR, Gm3: Weber pots PPG on Galchenyuk's feed

Goaltender Carey Price offered up a stellar performance of his own against the Rangers with a 1.86 goals-against average and .933 save percentage. The Habs' starter admitted that scoring a few more goals might have helped his team's cause in the tight opening-round series, but no one knows better than the All-World netminder how hard it can be to light the lamp behind an elite goalie.

"It would be great if we could score five goals every night, but in reality it's a hard league to score goals in; a lot of teams play really well defensively, that's the nature of the game," said Price, who is a finalist for the 2017 Vezina Trophy following another stellar season between the pipes. "It'd be great if we could score a lot of goals, but I'm not going to expect that every night."

Despite the early elimination, Price was bullish on his team and was happy to look back on a tight-knit group he believes will be poised to do great things come September.

"We've got a lot of character on this team, we've got great chemistry here. It was one of the most fun years I've had here, with this group of guys," pronounced the 29-year-old puckstopper. "We've got a lot of guys who played well in the playoffs. A lot of the young players, like Lehky [Artturi Lehkonen], played so well in the playoffs. We have a bright future. You see guys are gaining experience, and every year you gain experience is great."

As the players prepared to head their separate ways for the offseason, the message around the dressing room was clear; they're ready to get back to work to turn this year's bitter ending into next season's sweet success.

"Everyone here worked really hard, with all their heart, but it just wasn't enough. We knew winning was possible," said Byron, who showed exceptional leadership in his first playoffs, leading the team in hits with 26. "Our team is very close to winning the Cup."

 Video: NYR@MTL, Gm5: Price extends pad to rob Zuccarello

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