The winners bounded down the tunnel to the visiting dressing room, singing “Ole, ole, ole” – one final dig at their vanquished opponents.
On the other side of the Bell Centre, the gifted rookie, Alex Galchenyuk, stood in full equipment as the television cameras gathered around him, rage in his eyes, stony expression on his face.
Jubilation, despair, the gamut of emotions, all of them juxtaposed, it can only be the playoffs.
The Ottawa Senators will be justly proud of taking out the second-seeded Montreal Canadiens in an expeditious five games, slamming home the final nail in a 6-1 crushing before the Bell Centre’s shell-shocked fans.
As Sens coach Paul MacLean said afterward, “We just beat the Montreal Canadiens, that’s huge. I have to call my mum and say we just beat her team.”
Though the Habs were left befuddled by the stellar play of Ottawa goalie Craig Anderson (“the best player in the series,” Montreal coach Michel Therrien called him), is there anyone that can safely bet against a team that claims “pesky is the new sexy?”
“This year’s been about proving people wrong,” said Ottawa defenceman Chris Phillips, a 35-year-old who turned back the clock against the Habs.
So far, they’ve done an admirable job of silencing the skeptics.
Ottawa will now have some time to wait to see who their next opponent is, a rest that 40-year-old Ottawa captain Daniel Alfredsson said is “going to be huge – especially for me.”
One player who might be less excited at the idea of an extended break is Anderson, who is in a vein of form so rich he would doubtless be ready to play tomorrow. And the next day.
It’s the first post-season series win for Anderson at any level – he was absolutely magnificent in this series, posting a .950 save percentage.
“It’s a relief. Nice to get that over with so you guys (the media) can stop bugging me about it,” the 31-year-old said.
In another room in the bowels of the Bell Centre, Anderson’s good friend and former tandem partner in Colorado, Peter Budaj, could only congratulate his old friend. The two shared an embrace and a few words in the handshake line – and yes, Therrien and MacLean shook hands despite the volleys of harsh words they exchanged in the series.
“I just told him that he did a good job and good luck to the guys . . . somebody has to lose, and even though I felt we played the majority of the game better, that was us tonight,” Budaj said.
This is plainly a tough one to swallow for the Habs.
They entered the series as the favourites – although a Sens team at full strength all year would have given them a serious run for the division title – and dominated large stretches.
Was it any consolation?
“No. I mean, it’s frustrating, it’s tough right now. You have to give them credit, they played hard, they played a good series, there’s a lot of coulda, shoulda, woulda right now, the bottom line is they won four games first,” said rookie Brendan Gallagher.
It was perhaps the first time this season the pint-sized winger couldn’t muster his trademark grin.
Nearby, Galchenyuk refused to talk about his marvelous performance in the season’s late-going and in the series – he was comfortably Montreal’s most dangerous player, despite sharply limited ice time.
“Our motto all year is ‘No excuses,” so there’s no excuse,” said Galchenyuk. “If we would have won there would be positives, but we came up short, there’s obviously no positives.”
That the Habs’ rookies would take the loss so personally will doubtless cheer the club’s veterans, although they won’t have expected any different.
For Gallagher, Galchenyuk, defenceman Jarred Tinordi and young centre Gabriel Dumont, the playoffs is now something they’ve been through.
“This sucks, this one hurts more than others in the past,” said defenceman Josh Gorges. “(The rookies) got their first taste, they understand what it takes now. What it’s like for other guys like myself, (injured captain Brian) Gionta, (Travis) Moen, and (Michael) Ryder . . . it’s not easy. There’s not a lot of time to succeed and get to the ultimate goal, it gets harder and harder every year.”
There are lots of mitigating circumstances, of course.
In game one, the Habs peppered Anderson with 50 shots, but not only did they lose, they lost the services of key centre Lars Eller to Eric Gryba’s vicious hit (yes, the Habs all shook Gryba’s hand too after the game), and also injuries to top scorer Max Pacioretty (separated shoulder), and Gionta (torn biceps tendon).
That they later lost starting goalie Carey Price – in a controversial overtime loss in game four – only made it worse.
Still, the Habs had their chances. But they couldn’t win when they needed to.
“It’s heart-breaking to see it end so quickly,” said Pacioretty.
Despite icing a badly depleted lineup, the Habs looked like they were prepared to give it a go in win-or-go-home circumstances.
Montreal buzzed the Ottawa net from the opening shift, and after a second wave of Habs forwards came over the boards, Anderson was tested.
Tomas Plekanec danced around a defenceman in the corner to set up Rene Bourque, who was all alone in the slot, but the big winger’s one-timer found only Anderson’s glove.
It would be the first of 32 saves on the night.
A few moments later, Anderson denied Montreal’s Mike Blunden on a rebound.
It’s the sort of thing that gives a team wings, and Ottawa duly profited from a Budaj mistake to open the scoring 2:17 into the game.
Matt Kassian’s inoffensive clear-in bounced off Budaj’s chest protector and landed squarely for Zack Smith, who had stolen in behind Galchenyuk to slot it into an empty net.
Montreal’s response was to pour forward in ever-greater numbers, and Bourque should have tied the game with Anderson down and out, but could only hit the foot of the right goalpost.
Ottawa duly padded its lead a few minutes later, after Tinordi’s ill-advised pinch created a two-on-one that Budaj couldn’t thwart; Cory Conacher scored his second in as many games into an empty net.
The Habs clawed a goal back on the power-play in the final minute of the first, but even then P.K. Subban’s hard slap-shot was deflected by the Sens’ Erik Condra – Anderson had the original shot covered.
As the game wore on, the Habs continued pressing and dictating the play, but Anderson stood tall.
At one point, he managed to bat away an Andrei Markov shot that took a pair of deflections before reaching him.
By the time Alfredsson, Conacher (on a stoppable wrister) and Condra scored third-period power-play goals, this game was already long over.
Notwithstanding the despair of the fan who lobbed a Canadiens jersey on the ice in the third period, the loss closes the books on a season that has to qualify as an unexpected success.
Sure, the expectations were high when the Habs captured the Eastern Conference’s second seed. But this is a team that finished dead last in the East a year ago, a return to the playoffs, even a short one, constitutes progress.
“We made a step forward,” Therrien said.
And there is much to be encouraged by.
Galchenyuk and Gallagher provided yeoman service during the regular season, and both revealed themselves to be ready-built for the playoffs (three goals and five points between them).
Tinordi, 21, had some low points in the final game, but looks a real prospect.
And Subban took up residence among the NHL’s elite defencemen with a splendid season that saw him tie for the league lead for points from rearguards.
Price, Eller, Gionta, Brandon Prust and Alexei Emelin will heal from their season-ending injuries, and the Habs will live to fight another day.
Therrien likes to say that adversity forges character, if that’s true the Habs have just acquired a vast amount of it.
Unfortunately for them, the Senators’ reserves are greater.
But there’s a sense this rivalry is just beginning, a prospect MacLean called “exciting.”
It also promises to be good business for both teams.
That might explain the new homepage on the Sens’ website: Ottawa and Montreal goalie masks and a legend that says ‘After 85 years, a historic rivalry is reborn’.