Montreal Canadiens players hang their heads on their bench after the Toronto Maple Leafs defeated the Canadiens 6-5 during NHL action on Saturday in Toronto. (CP/Nathan Denette)
A rousing comeback from a 3-1 deficit turned to dust as the Canadiens surrendered two power-play goals in the third period of a 6-5 loss to the Maple Leafs in Toronto on Saturday night.
That and a 3-1 loss to the Rangers in New York on Thursday, when they also failed to clinch a post-season berth, dropped the Canadiens out of the playoffs despite a 9-4-0 run in the final four weeks of the season.
"Indiscipline Sinks The Canadiens" was the headline Sunday in Montreal La Presse.
Had they won, the Canadiens would have met the first-place overall Buffalo Sabres in the first round. They went 3-2-2 against the Sabres in the regular season.
"I thought we'd be a good first-round opponent for
Buffalo," winger Chris Higgins said after the game. "It makes it that much more disappointing.
"We thought we could beat Buffalo."
Players are expected to clear out their Bell Centre lockers on Monday. No date has been set on when team management will meet with the media to review a season that saw a streaking team fade in the second half.
"We made a lot of strides," said first-year head coach Guy Carbonneau. "A lot of individuals had very, very good seasons.
"We found out we have depth. We found out
we have some good kids. We have to come back in
September and be stronger.
"The first 45 games were above what we expected, then we
went down for a while and we finished strong. That's something we'll look at in the summer - why we couldn't (make the playoffs)."
Actually, the turning point was after the 34th game, when a fifth win in a row had them 21-8-5 and threatening Buffalo for first place in the Northeast Division.
On the way back from their next game, a 4-2 loss on Boston on Dec. 23, some players fell ill with an intestinal virus, which swept through the team in the ensuing weeks.
That was followed by a raging flu and other illnesses. Craig Rivet missed three weeks with pneumonia before he was traded to San Jose in February, and Alex Kovalev missed time with vertigo.
The Canadiens also plan to look into what brought on the unprecedented spate of sickness.
But there was more to it than that.
The energy and cohesion that marked their early season success was missing for most of the second half.
There will be fingers pointed at veterans Sergei Samsonov and Kovalev, who had disastrous seasons.
Samsonov, the team's main free agent signing, was a healthy scratch for the final 13 games of the season and is expected to be either moved or bought out of the final year of his contract.
Kovalev, a leader on attack, caught fire briefly near the end of the season, but went flat in the final three games to end with only 18 goals and 29 assists.
Back-up goalie David Aebischer had his moments, but played himself into third-string status after rookie Jaroslav Halak joined the team in February. Aebischer, a free agent, is not likely to return.
"Now it's time to look back and take everything apart and
evaluate," said Higgins, who had two goals in Toronto. "We didn't play well in the second half of the game and we didn't play well in the second half of the season.
"In the first half of the season, everything went our way. In
the second half, it was the complete opposite. It's automatically a disappointing and embarrassing season if you don't make the playoffs."
General manager Bob Gainey's main summer tasks will be re-signing free agents Andrei Markov, and Sheldon Souray. Checking forwards Radek Bonk and Mike Johnson also need new contracts.
The Canadiens had their bright spots.
Captain Saku Koivu, who played the season with a small cataract in his eye from a high stick in last year's playoffs, had a career year in goals with 22 and points with 75 to lead the team. He is to have the cataract removed in the off-season.
Michael Ryder's hat trick in Toronto gave him a second straight season with 30 goals.
Sheldon Souray, who left the game with a suspected dislocated shoulder, scored 26 goals and set an NHL record with 19 power-play goals by a defenceman.
Centre Tomas Plekanec, with 20 goals, and versatile defenceman-forward Mark Streit had break-out seasons, while Mike Komisarek established himself as a physical force on defence.
They also brought four impressive rookies onto the team - big winger Guillaume Latendresse, speedy checking centre Maxim Lapierre, skilled playmaker Andrei Kostitsyn and Halak, whose solid play down the stretch kept Montreal in the playoff race.
Halak ceded the starting job for the final game to Huet, who returned this week from hamstring surgery. Some dispute Carbonneau's decision.
But while Huet let in two goals he'd probably like to have back, he also held Montreal in the game while they were outshot at one point 19-2 in the first period.
Halak, Lapierre and Kostitsyn are expected to return to Hamilton, giving the top farm club a huge boost for the AHL playoffs. Latendresse, still junior age, cannot be sent to Hamilton.