MONTREAL – Rookie goaltender Carey Price was close to tears in the defeated Montreal Canadiens dressing room.
The Philadelphia Flyers, as opportunistic as they had been through the entire series, had roared back from a two-goal deficit in the second period to end the Canadiens season with a 6-4 victory on Saturday night.
Philadelphia won the best-of-seven series 4-1 to advance to the NHL Eastern Conference final for the first time since 2000.
Price, solid in the first frame, allowed three goals on six shots in a 2:58 span late in the second to let Montreal’s first lead of the series slip away.
And even though Andrei Kostitsyn came back to tie the game 4-4 to revive Montreal hopes only 2:13 into the third period, Flyers winger Scottie Upshall batted a puck out of the air with 3:04 left in the game and Mike Knuble added an empty net goal with 50 seconds left to seal their fate.
“It’s probably the toughest loss in my career so far,” the 20-year-old Price said. “I don’t like losing one bit.
“It’s tough to swallow.”
When it was over, the sellout crowd of 21,273 gave the home side a big ovation and sang their Ole Ole fight song in appreciation of a strong season that saw a young Montreal team finish a surprise first in the conference in the regular season, only to be ousted in the second round of playoffs by the sixth-seeded Flyers.
Philadelphia, which finished last in the 30-team league last season, will face either the Pittsburgh Penguins or the New York Rangers in the conference final.
“What a great team, what a great year,” said ecstatic Flyers coach John Stevens.”It’s pretty rewarding to see our players that excited, to see everyone in our organization moving on against a team like Montreal.
“I think our guys really wanted this game.”
Red-hot R.J. Umberger, a 13-goal scorer in the regular season whose two goals gave him eight in the series and nine in the playoffs to date, started the three-goal binge in the second period that erased a 3-1 Montreal lead
Mike Richards and Scott Hartnell also scored on Price, who was back in the net after sitting out Game 4 in favour of back-up Jaroslav Halak.
Tomas Plekanec, Alex Kovalev and Christopher Higgins had the other goals for Montreal.
“Hopefully, we will continue to grow as a team and that the next time we’re in this situation, we’ll be a better team,” said captain Saku Koivu.
The three quick goals seemed to rattle Price. Coach Guy Carbonneau thought about replacing him for the third period, but decided to stick with the goaltender who excelled late in the season and into the early part of the playoffs.
“I can blame Carey and a lot of people,” said Carbonneau, who called it his club’s worst defensive effort of the series. “We want our goaltenders to be better.
“But in a few weeks, there will be 29 teams saying the same thing. Only one team can win the Stanley Cup. The Flyers seemed to take advantage of every bounce and break they got.”
Added Koivu: “It’s not an easy situation for (Price). I’m sure he felt the pressure and that there are a few goals he’s like to have back, but you have to learn from these experiences.
“There’s a goaltender who will win a Stanley Cup for this team one day. He’s that good.”
The sell-out crowd greeted the Canadiens with a deafening chant of “Go Habs Go” as they looked to stave off elimination on home ice.
They got what they were seeking by getting traffic front of goalie Martin Biron and opening the scoring for the first time in the series. Plekanec got the edge of the crease during a power play to redirect a Patrice Brisbois shot in at 4:29
Philadelphia tied it at 10:20. Price stopped Umberger’s first attempt on a rush but the big winger celebrated his 26th birthday by pushing in the rebound while sliding on the ice.
Kovalev put Montreal back in front at 11:28. The crafty Russian was parked in front and looked to drag his foot so that Maxim Lapierre’s wrap-around went in off his skate.
Everything looked to be going Montreal’s way as Higgins scored on a wrist shot 8:15 into the second frame and then the Canadiens killed off a 56-second two-man advantage.
But a break went to the Flyers when Richards reached up his left hand and tried to catch Umberger’s high shot, only to see it hit a finger, then brush his chest and go in past a befuddled Price at 14:02. Video replay confirmed the goal counted because it was not batted in with a hand.
There were no complaints from Montreal about the call.
“I thought he was going to knock it down but I guess he just missed it,” said Price.
Only 1:42 later, Price failed to cover his post as Umberger sneaked a shot in from the side of the net. Hartnell then scored on a blast from the left side at 17:00 to put the Flyers in front for the first time in the game.
Kostitsyn beat Biron with a blast from the left wing to tie it, but Upshall was parked beside the net to bunt Jeff Carter’s high shot into an open side to put the Flyers ahead for good.
Carbonneau suggested the Flyers may have benefited from karma, because after a season wracked with injuries and suspensions, so many bounces went their way.
“They have good players, but sometimes you need to get breaks too,” he said. “With what they had against us, I hope they have some left.”
Carbonneau’s lucky multicoloured tie suffered it first defeat and is now 3-1. And the Canadiens, who won the series opener in overtime, lost four games in a row for the first time this season.
Notes: The Flyers are 2-3 all-time in playoff series against Montreal… The Canadiens went 4-0 against Philadelphia in the regular season, outscoring them 15-6. . . There were no roster changes for either team.