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Gainey, Habs reflect on a disappointing season

TSN.ca Staff

4/23/2009 6:21:19 PM

For the Montreal Canadiens, it was supposed to be a season of celebration. It was supposed to be a chance to honour the rich past of their storied franchise while simultaneously looking forward to a promising future. It was supposed to be a year of great success. It was supposed to be a lot of things.

Instead, the oldest team in the National Hockey League ended its 100th campaign on Wednesday not with a bang but with a whimper. As the team was lifelessly swept by their arch-rival Bruins by a combined score of 17-6, led by former Canadiens cast-off Michael Ryder, and as the boos reigned down on the ice from the hostile Bell Centre crowd, one question seemed to be floating through the air: how did it come to this?

"We projected a number of players to continue to progress and grow and really through the first half of the season we got most of that. It was the second half where we had the problems and once they started to accumulate, we weren't able to carry through with what look like on paper last September, should be a team still competing in the playoffs today," said general manager Bob Gainey in a press conference Thursday.

Carey Price was a key member of the Canadiens younger core, who was expected to make a significant leap in his sophomore season, but after struggling through the year, the situation came to a head Wednesday night.  

The Montreal faithful may not have booed the American national anthem as they had the previous game, but whatever hostility they held in was reserved exclusively for their own team. The Habs were trailing the Bruins 4-1 when Price made a routine save on a long dump-in and was applauded mockingly by many of the 21,273 in attendance.  Price lifted both arms into the air incredulously in a rare show of emotion.

It was a move reminiscent of Patrick Roy's sarcastic acknowledgement of crowd jeers back on December 2, 1995, when he surrendered nine goals in an 11-1 loss to Detroit. It was Roy's last game with the team.

"I made that particular gesture to remind people that booing doesn't always help," Price stated on Thursday. "We're out there trying our hardest, guys are playing hurt and we're doing everything we can and things werent going our way and we started having people turn on us in our own rink. It's kind of hard to put up with."

Price's frustration was evident a day after the loss, and now he must face five months off questions about his status with the team.

"It seems since the Calder Cup and the world juniors there have been high expectations on me. I'd like to met them, but sometimes I'm not able to. Sometimes I think I'm put on too high a pedestal and get thrown under the bus too much," he remarked.

There is likely plenty of roster shuffling to do for Gainey in this extended off-season. The team has four restricted free agents and 11 unrestricted free agents, meaning the next edition of the Montreal Canadiens could look very different when they hit the ice for training camp this summer. It's possible that Alex Kovalev, Saku Koivu and Mike Komisarek could all be elsewhere when the puck drops on season #101, so Gainey has his homework cut out for him.

"I think I need some time right now to get away from the game and just clear my head and think about what the future will be. Obviously, the team will do the same thing and they're going to go through the season and make up their mind on what the roster will look like going into next year," said Koivu. "This is a home for me and I love it here, I've no reasons to leave but at this point their plan has to be the same as mine if I'm going to be here."

Koivu's comments are an unpleasant end to a centennial year that had an encouraging start for the Canadiens. At the team's 100th home opener ever, they defeated their fellow Original Six counterparts the Bruins in a shootout, thrilling a raucous crowd excited about the potential of a deep playoff run.

Then, on November 22, the team honoured its greatest goaltender when Patrick Roy's #33 was raised to the rafters in a classy ceremony.

The Canadiens were an outstanding 27-13-6 heading into the All-Star festivities, which took place in their own puck-starved city.

In February, they acquired veteran defenceman Mathieu Schneider, who had started his NHL career in Montreal back in 1987 and promised to add depth and leadership to this talented squad. The prospects were good for the Canadiens.

Then, in February, things took a dramatic turn for the worse. And that's an understatement.

The first blow came when a struggling Alex Kovalev was asked to rest for a few games by general manager Bob Gainey. There was rampant speculation that the underachieving forward was on his way out of town. Kovalev returned in style on February 21st for a meeting with the Senators and was named the game's first star after a three-point performance in a winning cause. Still, it's possible the move may have had lingering effects on the team's morale.

That same month, Montreal newspaper La Presse reported that Sergei and Andrei Kostitsyn and Roman Hamrlik were involved with an individual who was part of a large organized crime ring in the city. The three players claimed to know the person named in the story, but denied any wrongdoing, and nothing ever came of the charges. But like the Kovalev incident, the media circus that surrounded the Habs seemed to put a dent in the collective psyche of the team. Perhaps the spotlight in the hockey-crazed town was getting a little too bright.

In March, with the team struggling both on and off the ice, coach Guy Carbonneau was fired in a surprise move meant to shake things up. General manager Bob Gainey resumed his post behind the Habs' bench, just as he had done three years earlier when he terminated then-coach Claude Julien's contract.

This, of course, was making headlines right alongside numerous and persistent reports that the team was about to be sold to any number of prospective buyers, bringing instability and uncertainty into an already fragile situation.

Late in the season, in what was perhaps the final straw, the team's two best defencemen, Schneider and Andrei Markov, were both lost to injury.

Amid the numerous scandals, injuries, personnel changes and rumours of their imminent sale, the team went 14-17-5 in the second half of the season, plummeting to eighth in the Eastern Conference and narrowly slipping into the post-season.  This close call came just one year after the Habs had cruised into the playoffs in first place, and just six months after they had started the season with Stanley Cup rings in their eyes.

When the final seconds ticked down on a disappointing 4-1 loss and a crushing first-round playoff exit on Wednesdsay, there was a collective sense that the wind had been taken out of the Canadiens' sails.

"We were always playing from behind or tied no matter how well we played," said forward Chris Higgins. "It's frustrating. Right after the game I thought, 'I'm surprised it's over.'"

For the Bruins, led by former Habs coach Julien and former Habs whipping boy Ryder, it was their first playoff series win since 1999 and a move on to bigger things.  For the Canadiens, it was final confirmation that big changes were needed, and it was the start of a long rebuilding process.

Komisarek summed up the general sentiment behind the team's failure this season.

"We wanted to make this an unbelievable season," Komisarek said as the dust settled. "After the season we had last year, this is the last way I thought it would unfold. It's disappointing."