MONTREAL - A wild ride of a season is over for the Montreal Canadiens and to a man they believe their regular season success and playoff disappointment will make them stronger.
It all ended Saturday night when the young Canadiens blew a 3-1 lead in the second period and fell 6-4 to the Philadelphia Flyers in Game 5 of their Eastern Conference playoff series.
The sixth-seeded Flyers moved on to the conference final while the top-seeded Canadiens were left wondering what went wrong.
"It's very disappointing right now, but we'll get away from the game for a couple of days and I'm sure that when we look at the season, there are a lot of positive things, and those are the feelings we have to take with us," said captain Saku Koivu after the game.
"But it's not going to be easier next year. Now people expect us to be good, so we have to be that much better next year to repeat this and go further."
Few people predicted the Canadiens would even make the playoffs after finishing 10th last season and then failing in a bid to land star centre Daniel Briere, who signed with the Flyers instead.
But they did sign steady veteran Roman Hamrlik on the blue-line, as well as checkers Tom Kostopoulos and Bryan Smolinski, whose true value surfaced during the post-season.
Veteran winger Alex Kovalev bounced back from a bad season to have an 84-point campaign, while young players like centre Tomas Plekanec, wingers Andrei and Sergei Kostitsyn and Christopher Higgins and defencemen Mike Komisarek and Josh Gorges took big steps forward.
And gifted goaltender Carey Price, for all his woes against Philadelphia, had a strong enough rookie season that veteran Cristobal Huet was traded at the Feb. 26 deadline.
The Canadiens ended the season first in the conference with 104 points and had their easily excitable fans in a fever for a 25th Stanley Cup.
The playoffs proved tougher, however, as they needed seven games to oust eighth-seeded Boston in the first round before bowing out to a physical Philadelphia team that buried its chances and got solid goaltending from 30-year-old playoff neophyte Martin Biron.
The goals that came easily as they became the top-scoring club with the best power play during the regular season stopped going in under playoff pressure.
They outskated and outchanced the Flyers in nearly every game, but spent the first four games playing catch-up after falling behind by at least two goals. When they finally got an early lead in Game 5, the Flyers roared back and stole that game away as well.
Koivu said an illustration came after Andrei Kostitsyn tied the score 4-4 on Saturday night. Late in the game, Guillaume Latendresse made a quick move but fired the puck off the post, and moments later, Philadelphia's Jeff Carter threw a high puck toward the Montreal net that Scottie Upshall bunted out of the air for the game-winning goal.
"Give them credit, they did a lot of good things and they won the series 4-1, but I felt that the luck and bounces weren't on our side and it's frustrating," said Koivu.
Guy Carbonneau, a Jack Adams Trophy candidate in his second year as head coach, was equally puzzled.
"They took advantage of their chances," he said. "This was probably the worst game we played defensively.
"The other games, we held them to 20 (or so) shots or less, but every time they shot the puck it hit something and went in. They got the breaks and they took advantage of them. I can't say we played bad defensively in the series."
The Canadiens were particularly hurt by big forward R.J. Umberger, who had 13 goals in the regular season but scored eight in five games against Montreal.
Umberger scored in the first period to erase Montreal's brief 1-0 lead, but the goal that turned the tide came with Montreal up 3-1 in the second frame.
Umberger threw a high shot toward the net. Mike Richards tried to catch it but missed and the puck went off his hand, off his shoulder and into the net. Umberger and Scott Hartnell then got quick goals on the rattled Price to put the Flyers in front.
"Every goal, something happened," said Carbonneau. "The one that went off Richards. I think it had a three-inch hole to get in and it got in.
"They took care of their business and we didn't have a chance to take care of ours."
Still, Carbonneau called it a good learning experience for his club, most of which will likely be back next season.
Only Smolinski, aging defenceman Patrice Brisebois, defenceman Mark Streit and winger Michael Ryder, who sat out most of the playoffs and whose days in Montreal look to be over, are unrestricted free agents.
Signing Streit, a power-play point man with 62 points this season, could be the toughest task, although he said after the game his first choice will be to stay in Montreal.
"As a player or coach, you're frustrated, but I'm also realistic," said Carbonneau. "We've come a long way since September.
"I said then that we have a team to make the playoffs and we did. Now we've learned from it and we have to go that next step and become not only a team that can make the playoffs and have some success, but to be a contender. The young kids that gained experience this year will show up in better shape and with a better attitude next year and we are going to be a better club."