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Montreal Canadiens goaltender Carey Price leaves the dressing room at the end of season media availability Thursday, April 28, 2011 in Brossard, Que., after losing their NHL Stanley Cup playoff first round series to the Boston Bruins in seven games. (Ryan Remiorz/THE CANADIAN PRESS)
Montreal Canadiens goaltender Carey Price leaves the dressing room at the end of season media availability Thursday, April 28, 2011 in Brossard, Que., after losing their NHL Stanley Cup playoff first round series to the Boston Bruins in seven games. (Ryan Remiorz/THE CANADIAN PRESS)

Carey Price cements place as team's cornerstone Add to ...

It is the lot of the defeated competitor to confront questions that have no easy answers.

And Montreal Canadiens goalie Carey Price asked them of himself until nearly 7:30 a.m. after Wednesday's Game 7 overtime loss against Boston - finally succeeding in grabbing a few hours of sleep before the team's playoff post-mortem day.

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"I spent most of the night thinking about it," a drained Price said on Thursday. "But the sun still came up today."

Despite replaying the heartbreak of elimination in his mind's eye, Price said he was proud of the way his team battled and added, "I'm really excited about the hockey team that we have and the chemistry that we have."

And on a day when several players acknowledged a few home truths - "you've got to pull your weight and obviously I didn't," said underachieving centre Scott Gomez - there were indications that this is now unmistakably Price's team.

Price defended Gomez, calling him "a great hockey player" - the sort of thing dressing room leaders do. And he revealed that he addressed his teammates before the final game, saying there was no place he'd rather be than in that room, with them.

"When you earn the respect of your teammates they give you the kind of support that I got from them this year," he said.

The 23-year-old goaltender has come a long way since last season, when he left for a summer of rodeo competitions amid questions over his future with the team.

Those have now been answered resoundingly.

"In order to win the Stanley Cup it starts from the back end out ... he showed us time and time again this year that he's our guy," said defenceman Josh Gorges.

If Price is the foundation on which the Habs' edifice is built, the defensive corps is its essential structure.

The Canadiens have roughly $25-million in cap space to sign 13 players, and of the 11 defencemen currently on the roster, only two are signed for next season.

The good news for Habs fans is that one of them is 21-year-old P.K. Subban - perhaps the best skater on either team in the Boston series.

The exuberant and explosive Subban drove the Bruins to distraction - Boston goalie Tim Thomas lashed out at the rookie on Thursday, calling his alleged diving antics "a travesty" - and he must be considered one of the NHL's elite young defenceman.

But who to surround him with?

Gorges, who suffered a season-ending knee injury in December, will surely be re-signed with a hefty raise; general-manager Pierre Gauthier said he hopes to sign fellow injury victim Andrei Markov ("of course we would like to keep him") and hinted that he would also like to retain impending free agent Hal Gill, Subban's mentor.

For what it's worth, there is an aggressive lobbying campaign on Gill's behalf within the room.

Gorges said "no matter what happens, we have to get Hal back ... what he brings to this team is invaluable, he can't be replaced."

The rangy Gill, who led a penalty kill that shut out the Bruins in 21 tries, is keen to return and said "I'd love to play till they kick me out."

Gauthier, who said he will take a few weeks to let the playoff emotions subside before deciding on a personnel plan, also has some question marks up front.

Andrei Kostitsyn and Benoît Pouliot are both restricted free agents, neither has performed to their potential.

Then there is Gomez.

"It was a terrible season, there's no one that's more embarrassed than I am ... you've got to look your teammates in the eye and go to the boys that you've let them down all year. That's the hardest part," said the 31-year-old, who is the highest-paid player on the team and just closed the books on the worst season of his career.

Gauthier said "all options" would be considered regarding Gomez and the others, but that "we're not going to start putting [Gomez]on trial today" and the team wants to help the strugglers improve next season.

The GM also argued the future is bright for a team that counted five rookies and nine players under the age of 24 this year.

Centre Lars Eller blossomed in the playoffs along with rookie centre David Desharnais. Add in injured winger Max Pacioretty (who would have received medical clearance to rejoin the team had Montreal advanced) and it points to sunnier days ahead.

Eller suited up for Game 7 despite a dislocated shoulder and said "in the playoffs, I think I played like the player I want to be."

There's a prospect that should hearten Price, his team, and disappointed Habs fans.

Follow on Twitter: @MrSeanGordon

 

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