MONTREAL (AP) -The Montreal Canadiens' future arrived ahead of schedule this season, and his name is Carey Price.
The stunning trade of Cristobal Huet to Washington for a draft pick suddenly established the 20-year-old Price as Montreal's No. 1 goalie.
"It was pretty shocking, like very shocking - I didn't see it coming at all. I don't think anybody on the team did," said forward Chris Higgins on Monday as the team's players gathered for meetings at the Bell Centre two days after the Canadiens were eliminated from the playoffs by Philadelphia. "That was just a huge decision."
Price, chosen fifth overall in the 2005 draft, led the Canadian junior team to a gold medal at the 2007 world championships and was the AHL's playoff MVP last spring as the Bulldogs won the Calder Cup. He was expected to begin the season in the minors, but Montreal GM Bob Gainey decided that Price was the right guy to pair with Huet.
Despite a midseason stint in the minors, Price finished the regular season 24-12-3 in 41 games - winning 12 of 15 games after Huet was traded - as the Canadiens finished first overall in Eastern Conference.
"I'm sure when I get a little bit of quiet time I'll probably look back and reflect on all that happened over the last couple of years," Price said. "It feels like I've been playing for two years straight."
After building a 3-1 lead over Boston in the first round, Montreal was pushed to the limit before Price delivered his second shutout of the series as the Canadiens closed out the Bruins with an emphatic 5-0 win.
The team's dream of a 25th Stanley Cup leading into the franchise's centennial celebration in 2009 evaporated in the second round. A remarkable comeback, 4-3 overtime win in the opener against Philadelphia was followed by four straight losses that saw the Flyers briefly chase Price from the net.
The young goalie was on the verge of tears in the wake of the team's elimination Saturday.
"Whenever you lose you're going to be disappointed," Price said. "Just the fashion that we lost kind of makes it a little worse, it puts a bitter taste in your mouth for the summer so I can use it for motivation during the summer and come back stronger."
Beyond the freshness of the loss to the Flyers, Canadiens captain Saku Koivu has never ended a season on a higher note.
"There's no doubt that that's the way it is right now," Koivu said. "The number one reason for that is with the youth that we have on the team, the guys that we've been able to bring in the last two, three years, the role that they wanted and the role that they took on our team. You're going into the summer knowing that you don't have to make huge changes."
Montreal's regular season success was stunning, particularly among the many hockey observers that felt the Canadiens were not going to make the playoffs.
Belarusian brothers Andrei and Sergei Kostitsyn earned spots on the Canadiens' top two lines as their very different paths to the NHL converged.
Andrei, 23, came to North America one year after he was a first round draft choice by Montreal in 2003 while 21-year-old Sergei played junior hockey in Ontario and was drafted 200th overall in 2005.
Playing on a line with Alex Kovalev and Tomas Plekanec, the elder Kostitsyn finally delivered on his potential while his younger brother quickly displaced struggling right wing Michael Ryder after he was called up in December and secured his place alongside Higgins and captain Saku Koivu.
"The Kostitsyn brothers, Price, and a lot of other guys, they really showed they can play this game, and not just play but play well and be leaders," Kovalev said.
Along with the influx of young talent came a return to form by a rejuvenated Kovalev. The 35-year-old Russian led the Canadiens with 35 goals - including a team-high 17 on the NHL's top-ranked power play - and 84 points.
And Montreal led the NHL with 262 goals, the first time the Canadiens have led the league since 1979-80.
"It's definitely a disappointing ending but we should be happy with what we achieved," Kovalev said. "Last year we didn't make the playoffs and this year we finished first. I think that's already a big achievement."
Notes: Canadiens D Andrei Markov has decided to join the Russian team at the world championships being held in Halifax and Quebec City. Kovalev said he was not invited and that he had received text messages indicating that he was too slow for the national team. "If you don't want to use players, I mean, don't say those kind of things, like I'm not fast enough or whatever," Kovalev said. "I'm not saying it's insulting but it's kind of crazy hearing that from your own country."