PHILADELPHIA – The dream of an unexpected Stanley Cup is over for the Montreal Canadiens, while the Philadelphia Flyers’ improbable playoff run has one more chapter to go.
Arron Asham and Jeff Carter scored 84 seconds apart in the second period and the Flyers defence closed the door on a spirited Montreal comeback bid in a 4-2 victory on Monday night.
The Flyers, who squeaked into the playoffs by winning their final regular season game in a shootout, took the best-of-seven Eastern Conference final 4-1 and will face another Original Six team—the Chicago Blackhawks—for the Cup. Game 1 of the final goes Saturday night in Chicago.
The Canadiens, who came from behind to upset first-place Washington and defending Cup champion Pittsburgh in the first two rounds, didn’t have the energy to do it a third time.
“We’re not much for moral victories,” said Canadiens winger Michael Cammalleri, whose 13 playoff goals was a key to Montreal’s success. “I thought the Flyers did a good job of playing a disciplined style and we didn’t do as good a job of that.
“Our execution wasn’t at the level it was the first two series. It wasn’t where it needed to be.”
It will be Philadelphia’s eighth trip to the final and their first since 1997. They have not won since they took back-to-back Cups in 1974 and 1975.
“We have a lot of belief in our team,” said Flyers captain Mike Richards, whose team came back from a three-games-to-none deficit to beat the Boston Bruins in the last round. “When the chips are down, it seems to get better, so we’re confident.
“I don’t want to say we’re destined or anything, but we have a great team and we feel we have a good chance.”
The mood in the Canadiens dressing room was sombre afterwards, but optimistic that the playoff experience will help the team grow next season.
General manager Bob Gainey made wholesale changes after Montreal was swept in the opening round by Boston last spring. After struggling with injuries in the regular season, it surprised its fans with a thrilling run to its first conference final since winning the last of its 24 Cups in 1993.
“This hurts,” defenceman Josh Gorges said as he fought back tears. “To work this hard to get to where we are and then to come up short is tough to swallow because we know how close we were to where we were going.
“Yeah, we did a lot of great things and I’m proud of this group. We made steps in the right direction to build this team for the future, but it hurts.”
Gorges was sprawled on the ice in the final minute in a bid to keep the team alive, but the puck slid past him as Carter scored his second of the game into an empty net with 23 seconds left to play.
“Right then you knew we were done—that’s what hurt the most,” Gorges said.
Unlike the Blackhawks, who wouldn’t touch their conference trophy for fear it would bring bad luck, Richards grabbed the Prince of Wales Trophy, showed it to his teammates and then marched it off the Wachovia Centre ice as the 19,986 fans stood and cheered.
“Actually, there was a bit of debate on the ice,” said Richards, a member of Canada’s Olympic gold medal team. “I thought about it a little last night and my first instinct was to grab it.
“It took us a lot to get here and obviously it’s not the trophy we want, but we haven’t done anything conventional all year, especially in these playoffs, so we might as well go against the grain one more time.”
Richards scored while killing a penalty in the first period—his first goal of the series—after Brian Gionta gave Montreal and early lead.
Scott Gomez added a goal in the third as the Canadiens mounted a desperate charge but were unable to get the equalizer.
Montreal outshot the Flyers 27-26 and Michael Leighton, the journeyman brought to Philadelphia when injuries struck during the season, made the stops he needed to improve his playoff record to 6-1.
“It’s a great feeling. We got a great team here, a great bunch of guys I’m proud of every one of them,” said Leighton, who had three shutouts in the series.
“I said right from the beginning of the year, we just got to getin the playoffs and anything can happen. That’s a tough team over there and we just played great.”
The Canadiens got the start they wanted as a Chris Pronger pass up the middle was intercepted by Roman Hamrlik. The counterattack saw Gomez feed Gionta for quick shot that got through Leighton’s pads only 59 seconds into the game.
The Canadiens handed that goal back while they were on a power play at 4:25. Richards chased a loose puck through the neutral zone and saw goalie Jaroslav Halak wander from his net in an effort to beat him to it. But Hamrlik, trying to get back into the play, bowled over his goalie to leave Richards free to tap into the empty net.
It was the third short-handed goal against for Montreal in the post-season.
Philadelphia took over in the middle frame, where they have been most dangerous—outscoring opponents 26-7 in the playoffs thus far.
Asham, a former Canadien who shot over the net on a first-period breakaway, was behind the defence to take the puck after a turnover at the Montreal blue-line and beat Halak with a quick move at 3:07.
Only 1:24 later, Carter was in front to bang in a Richards pass from behind the net, prompting the crowd to chant “U-S-A” and sing a mocking version of the Canadiens celebration song.
P.K. Subban poked the puck out into the slot for Gomez to score his second of the playoffs 6:53 into the third to bring the score to 3-2.
Pronger took a four-minute high-sticking penalty at 9:12, but Montreal failed to score on the man advantage.
The Flyers defence proved too much for Montreal, allowing them few good chances in their four wins, and held one of the Canadiens best weapons, the power play, to 1-for-22 in the series.
It may be a busy off-season in Montreal. Both Halak and fellow goalie Carey price need to be signed, while leading scorer Tomas Plekanec can become an unrestricted free agent.
Notes: The Canadiens will likely send Subban to their American Hockey League Affiliate in Hamilton. The Bulldogs and Texas Stars are tied 3-3 in the Western Conference final. … Tom Pyatt, who left Game 4 with an upper body injury, was replaced by Mathieu Darche for Montreal. … Popular winger Dan Carcillo, bumped aside by the return of Jeff Carter, sat out a second straight game for the Flyers along with Andreas Nodl. … Montreal tweaked lines, including placing Darche on Gomez’ unit.