Even Sidney Crosby was impressed with the Montreal Canadiens.
How could he not be?
The team had just stunned his favoured Pittsburgh Penguins 5-2 in Game 7 of the second-round series when he came to his 2007 world championship teammate, Mike Cammalleri, in the handshake line on Wednesday.
"Great series, Cammy. Keep on going," Crosby uttered.
That's just what the Canadiens plan to do after their surprising run to the Eastern Conference final, their first trip this far since winning the 1993 Stanley Cup. They will play the winner of the Philadelphia Flyers-Boston Bruins series, which has been extended to a seventh-game finale on Friday.
First, the upstarts from Montreal knocked off Alexander Ovechkin and the Washington Capitals two weeks ago, now Crosby and the defending Stanley Cup champs have been sent packing.
Crosby was held to a goal and four assists in the series. He wasn't hurt and he wasn't exhausted from all the hockey the Canadian Olympic hero has played in the past 23 months. The better team in the series finale simply won.
"I'm not going to sit here and complain about playing Stanley Cup finals and Olympic gold-medal games," Crosby said. "That's a good problem to have and you have to deal with it. There are times when it is a grind and you have to deal with it.
"By no means is that any excuse or any reason for anything. I would never blame that on anything. Those are great things to be a part of and you have to find a way to still produce and be successful."
Led by their outstanding goalie, Jaroslav Halak, and opportunistic scoring, the too small and too soft Canadiens stepped up at the right time.
"We outchanced them 2-to-1 for six games," Crosby said. "I don't believe it ever got away from us. I think looking back at series, you look back at Game 4 and we have the lead there and we get a couple of bad breaks and maybe things would have been different then. But you can always look back.
"It's easy to be a Monday morning quarterback. It came down to execution and it came down to one game, that's basically it. They played better and, unfortunately, we did not play well."
This was the final game at Mellon Arena. The Habs won the first NHL game there back in October 1967 and the final game on Wednesday. Some Penguins fans stayed to watch a scoreboard video tribute after the loss, but the hundred or so Montreal fans almost drowned out the farewell with the Habs victory song, "Ole, Ole, Ole."
"I can't imagine what St. Catharine Street is like right now," said Cammalleri, in reference to the celebration that was going on back in Montreal.
"I'm a little too overwhelmed right now," remarked Cammalleri, when asked what the turning point was in the series finale.
'We're only halfway there'
The Habs built a 4-0 lead before the second period was six minutes old. First, it was Brian Gionta on the power play, then Cammalleri with his 12th in 14 playoff games. Dominic Moore scored in the second period and shortly after Travis Moen added a shorthanded goal to chase Penguins goalie Marc-Andre Fleury (four goals on 13 shots).
Montreal sat back and the Penguins checked in with goals from Chris Kunitz and Jordan Staal, but after the Canadiens killed off a critical 4-on-3 situation early in the third, the Canadiens were on their way. Gionta added another power-play goal midway through the final period.
Scoring twice with the man-advantage and going 6-for-6 on the penalty kill certainly helped the Canadiens' cause.
"We have some special guys on this team," Cammalleri said. "It's been a lot of fun to be part of ... but we're only halfway there."
This was supposed to be a team that was too small, built more for 4-on-4 regular-season overtimes and shootouts. But the Habs squeezed into the final playoff spot in the East by gaining a point in an overtime loss in their regular-season finale against the Toronto Maple Leafs and have kept on truckin' since.
"I know everybody is talking about Cinderella and everything, but everyone is pulling together and we felt the whole time that deep down we were better," said Montreal forward Scott Gomez, who has two Stanley Cup rings from his days with the New Jersey Devils.
"First of all, people have to understand that it's not the old days. It's not like No. 1 and No. 8 used to be with the salary cap and all. From Day 1, we looked around at the guys in the room and we thought 'Wow, this could be a really good team.' Then, injuries happened. It took us a while to find our way.
"We've been playing Game 7s, it seems for the last two months. We needed to win. We found ways to get into the playoffs. Once you get in, you never know. Not one time did we think it was No. 1 and No. 8. It's easy to say now, but we believed. It doesn't matter how big you are, heart goes a long way."
It also doesn't hurt to have a goalie like Halak. He made another 37 saves for the win.
"At this point, is it a great game or a good game," Cammalleri said. "We expect it from him and we're going to need it to continue if we want to keep going."