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The Montreal Canadiens stunning season is over tonight after they were beaten by the Tampa Bay Lightning by a score of 3-1 at the Bell Centre.  While they were swept out by a younger, faster and more skilled Tampa team, fans of Les Glorieux have to look back upon this season with a huge sense of pride.


While many pundits picked this Montreal team to finish somewhere near the bottom of the league – they were even picked to finish last overall – they proved the ‘experts’ horribly wrong and not only made the playoffs, but won a round as well.  In the end, the final game gave a glimpse into their entire season and brings with it a glowing optimism for the future.


As with the previous game in the series, Montreal came out with guns blazing and dominated the Lightning for the opening 20.  They played with an intensity and fire that augers well for the future of the franchise; a work ethic not seen in Montreal since perhaps the last Cup winning team in ’93.


It wasn’t long before all that hard work paid off when previous game goat, Niklas Sundstrom, scored a weak backhand goal on Nik Khabibulin off some stellar work from Joe Juneau.  The latter, who may have played his final game, had a wonderful evening, displaying many of the abilities that served him so well throughout his career.


Disappointing Jose Theodore, who didn’t have a playoff performance to suit his standards, also looked sharp early, turning away a deflected pass off the rear of Patrice Brisebois’ skate.  Shortly thereafter, rookie of the year candidate Michael Ryder swooped back hard and saved a goal when he covered for a pinching defenseman.


Unfortunately, the same problems which had plagued Montreal the entire series reared their ugly heads again.  The Montreal defence had significant trouble down low dealing with the speed and cycle of the talented Bolt attackers.  There were also problems in clearing the puck past intelligently pinching defenders who tended to beat the Montreal wingers to pucks along the side boards.


However none of these things seemed to dampen the Habs spirit or its will to push forward with everything they had.  That is, until, after hitting the crossbar with a shot, Richard Zednik was tackled in the Tampa crease and crumpled in a heap.  When he rose, he could put no pressure on his left leg and replays clearly showed that his ankle was bent sharply.  If that managed to withstand the hit, then it was his knee that surely gave way.  Whatever the case, he was helped off the ice and the Canadiens never quite regained their strength thereafter.


There were other chances, particularly early in the second.  Deadline acquisition and superstar Alex Kovalev and Yanic Perreault found themselves on a two-on-one.  With the defender playing it perfectly, Kovalev was left with only a shot, and even that was deflected.  One has to wonder if he’s played his last game as a Hab, or if his performance in the playoffs will be enough for Bob Gainey to offer him a contract in the coming months.


The Canadiens proceeded to shoot themselves in the foot after that, taking two silly penalties: Craig Rivet a cross checking call when his man was stationary and not near the puck, then, critically, Mike Komisarek who slashed Tim Taylor after the whistle.  This latter penalty cost dearly, and the young Hab defender will certainly have nightmares about his decision all summer.


Despite seemingly in control on the penalty kill, who else but Vincent Lecavalier should get the puck in the corner.  In an attempted pass out front, the puck went off the shin pad of Dan Boyle and zipped between a startled Theodore’s legs.  With that goal, much of the pizzazz went out of the Montreal game, and you could sense the confidence level dropping.


They did create more chances, as any team who has developed a work ethic such as they have are wont to do.  Jim Dowd, another deadline acquisition, and Juneau sped away on a two-on-one, and were thwarted by the Bolt goaltender. 


And in a display that should prove once and for all the type of leader he is, Saku Koivu came out and hammered the first guy he came across to try and get the momentum back for his boys.  As usual, Koivu’s game was stellar, and questions about his ability to succeed as a top line centre should be quelled once and for all.


Late in the second, Dowd attacked down the right flank and dropped a pass for Craig Rivet who was curling in behind.  Unfortunately, they were only just entering the Bolt zone and the defence was quicker than Dowd anticipated, thus offering one of the dreaded giveaways that the team had been trying to quell.  Turning the puck up ice, some nifty passing saw Francis Bouillon leave his man, Brad Richards alone.  He received the final pass and beat Theodore, who was cheating while expecting the pass, upstairs.


Much of the life was sucked out of the building and you could sense that this goal could very well be the final nail in Montreal’s ’04 coffin.


While the Canadiens continued to press into the third, it was hardly with the same enthusiasm or energy that saw them open the game.  There was a sense that the players were almost resigned to their fate, freak goals and last minute tallies finally taking their toll on the morale.  Individual play started to creep in as players failed to stick to the system that had carried them so far.


There were still bright spots, though.  Perreault gave the best hit of the match when he crunched Martin St.Louis into the boards mid-period.  The Koivu line typically produced many chances, but failed to convert on all of them.  Kovalev was even allowed to walk untouched from the corner at Khabibulin, but The Wall turned him back.


When Frederik Modin scored in the empty net and the crowd went silent, everyone knew the season was over.  At the Montreal bench two people were seen still gesticulating, Koivu and coach Claude Julien; they seemed to be discussing what they could do next – typical of those two to never say die.


For the final minute or so of the game, the Montreal faithful, the best fans in hockey, stood and cheered.  They sang as the seconds counted down on the season as thanks to the organization that had given so much from a season that seemed to offer so little.  As Olé rained down on the Habs for the final moments, it can only be hoped that, wherever he was in the Bell Centre, Bob Gainey managed something of a smile despite the defeat.


He and his team have restored pride in Montreal and have prepared a product that is sure to please for many years to come.  It’s been a while since the last Stanley Cup, but with the organization is such good hands and moving in such a great direction, it seems we may not have to wait that long for the next one.


The Canadiens are back, NHL.  Vive les Glorieux!