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Canadiens' Cup dreams dashed, renewed at same time

NHL.com @NHL

MONTREAL (AP) -The Montreal Canadiens nearly went down as a failed chemistry experiment. Instead, the remade Habs took their fans on the team's longest playoff ride in 17 years.

And though the Canadiens fell short of playing for the Stanley Cup for the first time since their last championship in 1993, summer in Montreal will be decidedly more upbeat than it has been in years.

Former general manager Bob Gainey's June 30 trade for Scott Gomez and free-agent signings of key newcomers such as Michael Cammalleri, Brian Gionta, Hal Gill, Jaroslav Spacek and Travis Moen paid huge dividends in the playoffs.

The Canadiens squeaked into the postseason as the eighth seed in the East, then upset No. 1 seed Washington and defending champions Pittsburgh in the first two rounds before falling to Philadelphia in five games in the Eastern Conference final.

"The group we have here is an exciting group to be a part of," said Cammalleri, whose 13 playoff goals were the fourth-highest in team history. "If a guy wants to win and wants to have fun doing it, this is the team you want to be on."

The Canadiens, who qualified for the postseason with a point earned in a 4-3 loss to Toronto in their final regular-season game, staved off elimination five times in the first two rounds on their way to seven-game series wins against the Capitals and Penguins.

"I thought we showed a lot of character down the stretch and in the playoffs," said Gionta, who scored his ninth playoff goal in Monday night's 4-2 loss in Philadelphia. "We made good strides but ultimately we're still disappointed. Your goal is to win a Stanley Cup and we felt we had a good chance to compete for it, and that unfortunately just didn't happen."

With Saku Koivu and Alex Kovalev among the 10 players from the previous year's team who weren't re-signed last summer, the new-look Canadiens battled through injuries while struggling to find their identity during the regular season.

In a surprise move, Gainey stepped down in early February. The Hall of Fame left wing and former Canadiens captain handed the reigns to his assistant, Pierre Gauthier, whose unheralded trade for center Dominic Moore also bore fruit in the playoffs.

"In the beginning of the season it wasn't easy to play together," said top defenseman Andrei Markov, who was sidelined for six weeks after he was cut on the foot in the season opener in Toronto. "We were looking for the right linemates and all that stuff. After the Olympic break we started to play good hockey. We just started playing with emotion and realized that every game was crucial for us."

Markov helped the Canadiens overcome a 3-1 series deficit against Alex Ovechkin's Capitals before sustaining a season-ending knee injury in the first game of Montreal's second-round win over Sidney Crosby and the Penguins.

Jaroslav Halak, who took over in goal for Carey Price during the season, starred in the first two rounds with key save after key save, while the opportunistic Canadiens made the most of their scoring chances.

Six of Cammalleri's goals came in games where Montreal faced elimination.

"Last year we lost in the first round and this year we lost in the third round so we made a step forward," said Markov, who is expected to miss six months after undergoing surgery to repair a torn anterior cruciate ligament in his right knee. "Hopefully, we're going to play better next year and we're looking forward."

Gauthier will face some challenging negotiations and tough choices with scoring leader Tomas Plekanec heading up a list of six unrestricted free agents, including Moore, Paul Mara, Glen Metropolit, Marc-Andre Bergeron and Mathieu Darche.

The Canadiens' goaltending future will likely come down to a choice between Halak and Price, who are among six restricted free agents.

"I was happy to play here in the playoffs," said Halak, who helped backstop Slovakia to a top-4 finish at the Olympics. "It was a great run and I'm very proud of everybody. I'm not sure what the future is going to bring. It's not going to be decided now, tomorrow or the day after. It's going to take a few weeks to do everything."

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