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The Globe and Mail

The Habs' heart-stopping run comes to a close

Perhaps the other team just had the better ghosts.

The Philadelphia Flyers put an end Monday night to the Montreal Canadiens' remarkable spring run to bring the Stanley Cup home to Canada for the first time since 1993.

Two teams that backed into the playoffs in the final weekend of the regular season - Montreal the eighth and final seed in the National Hockey League's Eastern Conference, Philadelphia the seventh - met in an unlikely conference final after both teams seemed to pull miracle after miracle out of their hockey helmets.

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The Flyers' 4-2 victory gave them a four-games-to-one triumph in the series and will send them on to meet the Blackhawks for the Stanley Cup final, which begins Saturday in Chicago. The Flyers have not won the Cup since 1975, the Blackhawks not since 1961.

Montreal played this spring as if inspired by the greats of the legendary bleu-blanc-rouge - Howie Morenz to Rocket Richard - with unknown backup goaltender Jaroslav Halak at times performing as if he were channelling the late Jacques Plante.

"We had a great opportunity there," said rookie Montreal defenceman PK Subban. "It's tough. We couldn't get it done."

Subban's actions spoke for his entire team as he broke down during interviews, sitting back in his stall, weeping.

It was a remarkable, inspirational and, at times, heart-stopping run, the Canadiens staging dramatic come-from-behind series victories over the Washington Capitals - the NHL's best team in the regular season - and the defending Stanley Cup champions, the Pittsburgh Penguins.

The Flyers, however, had their own ghosts to turn to, and did so regularly at Wachovia Center home games as they used a God Bless America duet by Lauren Hart and Kate Smith - Smith, who died in 1986, appearing by video on the scoreboard - to pump up the sellout crowd as well as the players.

"Success is not the result of spontaneous combustion," legendary Flyers coach Fred (The Fog) Shero used to say as he led Philadelphia to its only two Stanley Cups. "First you must set yourself on fire."

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It certainly has worked. The Hart-Smith duet has now opened up nine victories this spring for the team, compared with a single loss.

It took a Philadelphia minute, however, for the story that fans here hoped for to take an unexpected twist. Actually, it was 59 seconds into the game when tiny Montreal forward Brian Gionta scored on the first shot on Philadelphia goaltender Michael Leighton.

That quickly put an end to the Flyers' hope of setting another playoff record by having the unknown native of Petrolia, Ont. - the team's fifth goaltender of an injury-plagued season - win all four games in the series by a shutout.

The Flyers already matched an impressive NHL playoff mark when they rebounded from being down three games to none against the Boston Bruins in Round 2. Only three teams in history - the 1942 Toronto Maple Leafs, the 1975 New York Islanders and now the 2010 Philadelphia Flyers - have managed to do this.

Something seemed to go out of the Canadiens during that dismal Saturday afternoon 3-0 loss in Montreal.

"When you have bacon and eggs for breakfast," Freddie Shero also liked to say, "the chicken makes a contribution, but the pig makes a commitment."

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Montreal seemed to suffer slippage when it came to commitment, perhaps from sheer exhaustion. The team's mistakes grew increasingly costly. First, on a power play, Flyers captain Mike Richards raced for a clearing shot and caught up just as Halak and Montreal defenceman Roman Hamrlik arrived. The pileup left Richards alone with the puck in front of an empty Montreal net.

"I just tried to poke it by him," Richards said. "I got up and the puck was just laying there."

The Flyers took the lead in the second when Arron Asham was left alone in front of Halak and scored. Only 1:24 later, it was 3-1 Philadelphia courtesy of some nice passing that allowed Jeff Carter - just back from his second broken foot of the season - to flick the puck past Halak.

Montreal mounted an inspired attack in the third period and came within a goal when Scott Gomez fired a wrist shot over Leighton's right shoulder.

The Canadiens pulled Halak in the dying moments and it cost them, Carter scoring his second into an empty net.

"No one's satisfied that we took a run," Gomez said. "We wanted to get to the finals from Day 1. We definitely wanted to play more."

"It's a tough feeling right now," said Montreal forward Mike Cammalleri, who scored 13 times in the run. "You start believing in what could be."

In the end the Canadiens could not do it - yet for millions of Canadian hockey fans they had already done it, and more.

Despite the score, their spring ends in no insignificant victory. The Little Team That Could almost did …

As for the Flyers, they now get a chance to move on to every team's goal, the Stanley Cup.

Win that, Fred Shero used to say, "and we walk together forever."

But there are many steps yet to go.

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