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Canadiens' remodeling pays big dividends

by Dave Lozo
WASHINGTON -- Call it whatever you want. A housecleaning. A makeover. A revamping. No matter how you slice it, the Montreal Canadiens went into the 2009-10 season with a facelift that would make Joan Rivers blush.

It took a little while, but the new look finally paid dividends during the first round of the Stanley Cup Playoffs.

Gone were 2008-09 leading scorer Alex Kovalev, team captain Saku Koivu and forwards Robert Lang and Alex Tanguay. Along the blue line, Mike Komisarek and Mathieu Schneider were among those who bid Montreal adieu.

Brought in were forwards Scott Gomez, Brian Gionta and Michael Cammalleri. Some of the new defensemen include Jaroslav Spacek and Hal Gill. Not to mention rookie P.K. Subban, who was called up for the final two games of their Eastern Conference Quarterfinal Series with the Washington Capitals to act as a seventh defenseman -- while another new defenseman, Marc-Andre Bergeron, worked almost exclusively on the power play.

The recipe resulted in a seven-game series victory for the Canadiens, who completed the shocking upset of the Capitals with a 2-1 victory in Game 7 on Wednesday at Verizon Center.

"I think it was a big change in the offseason for everybody," said goaltender Jaroslav Halak, one of the few players who was there last season -- though he moved up from backup to starter. "We were kind of struggling in the beginning but we had new faces, everybody needed to get used to each other. But we faced a lot adversity all season. We had a lot of injuries, but here we are right now and we moved to the second round and I think everybody is happy."

The change in personnel started at the top when Bob Gainey stepped down as general manager and was replaced by Pierre Gauthier. It was a tough way to celebrate the Canadiens' centennial season, but the Habs were fighting for their playoff lives one year removed from a disappointing second-round loss in the playoffs to the Philadelphia Flyers as the East's No. 1 seed.

It wasn't like someone waved a magic wand over the team at the start of this season. Players struggled to find consistency with their new teammates, and the injury bug bit several key players over the course of the season, including defensive leader Andrei Markov and forwards Cammalleri and Gionta.

The Canadiens eked their way into the postseason after going 2-4-1 to close the regular season, including 0-2-1 over their final three games when all they needed was a point to clinch a playoff berth.

Yet somehow, everything started to click against the heavily favored Capitals.

Bergeron, despite being a minus-8 in the series, contributed a power-play goal in Game 7 to give the Canadiens a 1-0 lead. Travis Moen, primarily known for his ability as a checking forward, scored the game-winning goal in Game 5. And the great play of Halak overshadowed the big contributions of Cammalleri, who had 5 goals and 5 assists in the series.

"We brought in guys that are winners," Canadiens forward Glen Metropolit said when asked what the difference was between last season and this season. "Gomez knows how to win. Gio, Cammy's a great player, Hal, obviously. We got the right mix of guys.

"It was a tough year on us. We had some key injuries with Markov going down with a bad injury. We just fought throughout the whole year. Now we've got our whole team back and everyone's on board."

Cammalleri might've summed up the 2009-10 Canadiens better than anyone.

A lot of guys care," he said. "A lot of guys wanted to keep playing hockey."

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