Canadiens exceed expectations, but fall short
MONTREAL (AP) The Montreal Canadiens never expected to get so close to the Stanley Cup finals this season. Falling just short made the sting that much stronger.
Montreal's season ended Thursday night with a 1-0 loss in New York to the Rangers in Game 6 of the Eastern Conference finals. The Canadiens kept their season alive with a 7-4 win at home on Tuesday, but couldn't force a deciding Game 7 back in Montreal.
The Canadiens also reached the 2010 East finals, after upsetting Washington and Pittsburgh, but Philadelphia ended their run in the NHL's final four.
''This is harder to accept because I can see the window of opportunity closing bit by bit,'' 29-year-old defenseman Josh Gorges said. ''The older you get, the more you realize how difficult it is. We were so close.''
At the start of the season, the Canadiens were thought to be among a group of teams that would have to fight to just get into the playoffs. An 11-3-1 spurt down the stretch pushed them over the top and gave them the No. 4 seed in the East.
Montreal swept the Tampa Bay Lightning in the opening round of the playoffs and then upset its biggest rival, the top-seeded Boston Bruins, in a heated, seven-game series, before being eliminated by the Rangers.
Several players see a bright future ahead, but coach Michel Therrien wasn't ready to think about next season or reflect on the big picture of this season so soon after a bitter defeat.
''It's really tough talking about the entire season, because when you get close to achieving a goal, it hurts,'' he said. ''It hurts more when you're close.
''There are 29 teams this year that are going to be disappointed, and one team is going to be enjoying their season while winning the Stanley Cup. That is the purpose. But I look at the season, and we made some big progress this year. I'm proud of this hockey team. We battled hard through the regular season and we battled hard in the playoffs.''
The players are scheduled to have their exit interviews on Saturday. General manager Marc Bergevin will review the season with the media on Monday.
There are likely to be changes.
Bergevin's priority will be to sign star defenseman P.K. Subban to what could be a multi-year contract. The 25-year-old Subban, who won the Norris Trophy in the lockout-shortened 2012-13 season and is the team leader in ice time, can become a restricted free agent on July 1.
Negotiations could be difficult as Subban is likely to end up among the NHL's highest-paid players, even if another team doesn't make him an offer.
Other potential Canadiens restricted free agents include center Lars Eller, who had a disappointing regular season but was second on the team in playoff scoring, late-season pickup and playoff surprise Dale Weise, and forward Ryan White, who didn't play in the postseason.
Bergevin must also decide whether to try to keep unrestricted free agents Andrei Markov, Brian Gionta, Thomas Vanek, Mike Weaver, Francis Bouillon, Douglas Murray and George Parros.
Markov, a mainstay on defense since 2000, is 35. He is still a skilled and heady playmaker, but he has become slower with age. The story is similar for Gionta, the 35-year-old captain whose offensive production has declined.
Vanek, who had a disappointing postseason with only five goals and five assists in 17 games, has said repeatedly he will test the free agent market. Weaver, another late-season acquisition, is 36 but Bergevin might make the third-pair defenseman an offer because of his solid postseason play. He earned $1.1 million this season.
Bouillon's history with Therrien goes back to junior hockey, but the stocky defenseman is 38 and might be at the end of his career. It would be surprising if the slow-skating Murray and little-used enforcer Parros return to Montreal.
Decisions on defense will be influenced by youngsters who could be ready to be full-time NHL players. That group includes Nathan Beaulieu, Jarred Tinordi and Greg Pateryn, who had 15 goals for the AHL Hamilton.
Bergevin will also need to sort out his goaltending.
When Carey Price was injured in the opening game of the conference finals, Therrien turned to third-stringer Dustin Tokarski instead of backup Peter Budaj. Tokarski played brilliantly the rest of the series and appears to have surpassed Budaj on the depth chart. Budaj has a year left on a contract that pays $1.4 million.
Players signed long-term include Price, Gorges, Alexei Emelin, David Desharnais and Max Pacioretty.
Therrien's two-year contract is expiring, but Bergevin has already hinted he intends to keep the 50-year-old coach.