The morning after being knocked out of the Stanley Cup playoffs is never an easy time for an NHL club.
So much what-if, if-only-this, if-only-that. There is soul searching and so many questions. It's sort of like Nelly Furtado sings in one of her hits: Why do all good things come to an end?
Sure, the Montreal Canadiens make the transition into the off-season in a disheartened state of mind, but they should not be disillusioned about their future. They overachieved in advancing all the way to the East final. They're skating in the right direction.
They were able to build off the disappointment of last year's early first-round exit against the Ottawa Senators and improve. Unlike some of their Canadian-based counterparts in 2013-14 -- like the Senators, Toronto Maple Leafs, Edmonton Oilers and Vancouver Canucks -- the Canadiens made a leap forward.
"It's really tough talking about the entire season because... when you get close to achieving a goal, it hurts, and it hurts more when you're close," Canadiens head coach Michel Therrien said after his team's season-ending 1-0 loss to the New York Rangers on Thursday.
"There are going to be 29 teams this year that are going to be disappointed, and one team is going to be enjoying their season while winning the Stanley Cup. That is the purpose. But I've got to look around the season, and we made some big progress this year. I'm proud of this hockey team. We battled hard through the regular season and we battled hard in the playoffs."
Goaltending in great shape
The Canadiens upped their battle level with a season-defining, come-from-behind 5-4 overtime win at home over Ottawa on March 15. Montreal was down 4-1, scored three times in the final three minutes and 22 seconds of the third period, and veteran defenceman Francis Bouillon scored in overtime.
Including that important win, the Canadiens finished the regular season on a 11-3-1 run and carried that momentum into the playoffs with a rare first-round sweep of the Tampa Bay Lightning -- the only sweep among the 14 series in this post-season -- and a seven-game upset of the Presidents Trophy-winning Boston Bruins in the second round.
Therrien, his coaching staff, general manager Marc Bergevin, and his sounding board of Rick Dudley, Scott Mellanby, Larry Carriere and Trevor Timmins are only in their second year together and have the franchise on track.
Their best acquisition in the past 12 months was to convince goalie guru Stephane Waite to leaving the Stanley Cup champion Chicago Blackhawks to work for the Canadiens. Carey Price reached new heights, and when he hurt his right knee in the East final opener, youngster Dustin Tokarski arrived on the scene to stabilize the position.
Tough calls to make
They have some big decisions ahead. At the top of the list will be whether to sign soon-to-be restricted free agent defenceman P.K. Subban, 25, to a long-term contract. Subban enjoyed a strong playoff run, even if he appeared out of gas for a couple of the games in the East final against the Rangers.
Most of the recent Stanley Cup winners -- 2007 Anaheim (Scott Niedermayer, Chris Pronger), 2008 Detroit (Niklas Lidstrom), 2010 and 2013 Chicago (Duncan Keith), 2011 Boston (Zdeno Chara) and 2012 Los Angeles (Drew Doughty) -- had a dependable stud blue-liner. Sure, Subban is not mistake free. But he keeps getting better and he has been so dynamic with his howitzer of a shot he can put on net.
The difficult decisions for Bergevin and Co. come in the unrestricted free agent department. Do they retain veterans Brian Gionta, Andrei Markov and Mike Weaver? Do they make a pitch to sniper Thomas Vanek, who failed to produce in the Rangers series?
The common belief is that Vanek's first choice will be to sign with the Minnesota Wild, in the state where he played his college hockey. Other unrestricted free agents in Bouillon, George Parros and Douglas Murray likely will be gone, too.
End of Markov era?
Gionta, Markov and Weaver all add character. I could see Weaver and Gionta being retained at the right price, but the time may be right for the Canadiens to part ways with Markov because of the depth the organization has at the defence position with Nathan Beaulieu and Jarred Tinordi.
So, as you can see, the future is bright. But the one memory the Canadiens may want to hold onto going forward is how they feel the morning after losing to the Rangers and employ those emotions next season to get even better.
They were able to use the disappointment of the 2013 playoffs a year later. Now the trick is to use 2014 as motivation for next year.
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