MONTREAL - After a season focused mostly on youth, it is time for the veterans to step forward and lead, Montreal Canadiens general manager Bob Gainey said Monday.
"Experience is important and I think a portion of the results of our team in the last three months has to be directed toward our veteran players," Gainey said as the Canadiens began preparations for the playoffs after a better regular season than anyone expected.
"We had great performances by (Alex) Kovalev, (Bryan) Smolinski, (Roman) Hamrlik and (Mathieu) Dandenault, recently. Our veteran players will definitely be needed and relied upon. Is there a measuring stick for how many you need? Well, it's playoff experience 101 for some guys on Thursday."
The Canadiens, who stumped the pre-season prognosticators by finishing first in the Eastern Conference with 104 points, begin the post-season Thursday night at the Bell Centre against the eighth-seeded Boston Bruins.
Gainey may simply wish to deflect pressure off the nine players - 11 if newcomers Mikhail Grabovski and Greg Stewart are included - among the 25 currently with the squad who have never played in the NHL post-season.
That includes Carey Price, who will start in goal after an impressive rookie season, and his backup Jaroslav Halak, as well as regular contributors like brothers Andrei and Sergei Kostitsyn, forwards Guillaume Latendresse and Maxim Lapierre and defencemen Josh Gorges and Ryan O'Byrne.
That's not to mention Tom Kostopoulos, a free-agent signing last summer, who despite being in his sixth NHL season and has never lived a playoff game.
Gainey had so much confidence in Price that he dealt veteran goalie Cristobal Huet to Washington at the Feb. 26 league deadline for a second round draft pick.
Perhaps he saw all he needed last spring, when Price came up from junior hockey to lead the Hamilton Bulldogs to an AHL championship. He was nurtured slowly at the start of his NHL rookie season, but finished 24-12-3, including 12-3-0 after the Huet trade.
But now comes the real test, although Gainey has no misgivings about starting the season with a rookie in goal.
"It seems to me that we ran into a rookie goalie from Carolina (Cam Ward) a couple of years ago here (2006) and he ended up winning the Conn Smythe Trophy, so I don't really feel we have a lock on bringing in a new goalie," said Gainey.
Gainey, who won five Cups with Montreal as a player, said a key for Price was facing the New Jersey Devils and their superstar goalie Martin Brodeur twice within eight days in March and winning both, 2-1 and 4-0.
"The goaltending required by our team had to be triple-A," he said. "That's a good example of what I saw from him in the spring last year."
Gainey said the process started last season, when veteran Sergei Samonsov was signed to help give time for young players like Tomas Plekanec and Andrei Kostitsyn to develop, while veterans Huet and defenceman Patrice Brisebois played the same role this season.
The young guns responded. Plekanec had 29 goals, Kostitsyn had 26 and third-year winger Christopher Higgins scored 27, while Gorges and O'Byrne took large strides on defence. And the 20-year-old Sergei Kostitsyn is on an even quicker learning curve than his older brother, with 27 points in 52 games.
How they will react to the hype and intensity of the post-season remains to be seen, however, and that's where the veterans come in.
Smolinski, the most experienced Canadien with 111 playoff games, said this week there are no magic words a veteran can impart to equal what rookies will learn from living through post-season games themselves.
But there are former Stanley Cup winners in the room to watch and learn from, including three for Dandenault when he played in Detroit and one each by Kovalev (New York Rangers 1994) and Brisebois (Montreal 1993).
And there's loads of Stanley Cup rings among the coaching staff of Guy Carbonneau, Doug Jarvis, Kirk Muller and Roland Melanson.
"I'm very excited - the whole team is, the experienced guys and the young guys," said Kostopoulos. "It's the whole atmosphere in the city, with the fans
"The emotion will be huge, but if we can control it and use it to our advantage, that'll be key."
The Canadiens got first place in the conference by winning their final three games and watching their closest competitor, the Pittsburgh Penguins, sit out star Sidney Crosby and bow out meekly 2-0 to Philadelphia on Sunday, perhaps looking to avoid facing the Flyers in the playoffs.
It gave Montreal only one day to savour their accomplishment before work resumed Monday toward preparing for the playoffs.
"I think it's terrific that we finished first," said Gainey. "It has given us a potential advantage if we can survive in the playoffs if we can start like we are, at home on Thursday.
"All of us in the NHL are competitors and we're proud that this team finished ahead of the 14 other competitors."
Captain Saku Koivu, who missed the last four games of the season with a fractured bone in his left foot, didn't practise, while defenceman Francis Bouillon, who has a sore ankle, tried twice to skate, but had to leave the ice both times.
Koivu may not be ready to start the series, while a decision will be made on game day on Bouillon, said Carbonneau.
"For Saku, it's been two weeks now and it's healing, but he's still not 100 per cent.," he said.
Winger Michael Ryder skated with a brace on his injured leg and "I think he'll be OK," added Carbonneau.
Defenceman Mike Komisarek, who missed the last two weeks with a hip injury, has been practising with the team for a few days, but hasn't yet been cleared by doctors to play. He will have more contact drills each day to test it.
"I'd say he's pretty close," said the coach.