BOSTON - Carey Price offered the tiniest hint of a smile after sending the Boston Bruins home for the summer.
"'I'm ecstatic," said the Canadiens goalie in the wake of backstopping Montreal to the Eastern Conference final against the New York Rangers.
Considering it normally takes the Hubble Telescope to spot a change in Price's emotions, Wednesday was a night to remember.
The Canadiens, who finished eight places and 17 points back of the league-leading Boston during the regular season, made it so by dispatching the big bad Bruins 3-1 in Game 7.
Price, as he has been through the series, was all-world—even reportedly addressing his teammates prior to the third period. Dale Weise, Max Pacioretty and Daniel Briere provided the offence as Montreal rose to the occasion of Game 7 better than the Bruins.
Now the Habs must reload and refocus on the Rangers, a team coming off an emotional series win over Pittsburgh.
"It's not over. We're only halfway there," cautioned Price.
For the Canadiens, the win over Boston was all about respect. They were tired of being written off as also-ran Smurfs and fed up with what they saw as Boston's macho posturing.
"Beating those guys, it just feels that much sweeter," said Weise, who as a former Vancouver Canuck has no love for Boston.
"They just disrespected us in every single way and I didn't think they had any respect for us as a team," he added. "We'll leave it at that."
Said defenceman P.K. Subban: "A lot of people were saying 'Don't poke the bear.' Well I thought they gave us many reasons to keep competing throughout the whole series ... Against a bigger, stronger, more experienced team, we pulled out a victory. That's a character win for us. That's a character series win for us."
The chip on Montreal's shoulder was the size of Mount Rushmore. Weise did not spare the media, turning his attention to TSN's hockey panel as one of its members stood on his right shoulder.
"We were very comfortable playing that team," Weise said of Boston. "I think everyone else doubted us. I heard someone on the TSN panel actually say they were the perfect hockey club. I don't know what that says about us now."
Said Subban: "It come down to respect. We've done a lot of great things in this league since I've been here, our team's done a lot but we failed to get the respect that I think we deserved. And I think we earned that."
While there were the traditional handshakes after the game, there was also bad blood.
"Milan Lucic had a few things to say to a couple of guys," said Weise, who declined to go into specifics.
Lucic was unrepentant: "It's said on the ice so it'll stay on the ice. If he (Weise) wants to be a baby about it—he can make it public."
Montreal coach Michel Therrien was cagey when asked about the disrespect issue.
"I'm not going to talk about the other team," said Therrien. "I never talk about the other team. One thing I could tell you we were a group that was really really motivated to win this series."
He made the comment in both French and English just so the message got across.
He too clearly felt his club won more than a playoff round.
"Respect, you've got to earn it and I think tonight those guys earned it," said Therrien.
Boston coach Claude Julien had his own take on the series, which came complete with chest-pounding, muscle-flexing and crest-pointing.
"I don't think we disrespected them," he said. "There's a rivalry here. We don't like each other, because it's a rivalry.
"At the same time, the pounding of the chest, people who have been here have seen us do that all year. Because it's related to Boston Strong. Our guys take some pride in what's happened in Boston Strong and unfortunately everything we did seemed to be seen as disrespect in Montreal.
"We heard a lot of that whining throughout the series but it had nothing to do with disrespect."
Julien called it gamesmanship, the kind seen in every playoff round.
"It's too bad that it gets blown out of proportion. But you know what, they won the series fair and square. They were the better team tonight and you have to respect that."
The Canadiens showed character in the series, staving off elimination with a masterful performance in Game 6 in Montreal.
They also showed lots of savvy.
Montreal targeted Bruins captain Zdeno Chara, making the 37-year-old look slow and laboured. They also pressured Boston's young defenders, denying them avenues to advance the puck out of their end.
The series was like rolling a boulder uphill for the Bruins, who rarely got their game going. Boston was touted as the team with all the depth but it was Montreal that got production from different quarters while the Bruins sputtered.
Julien had said Game 7s deserved your best. The Bruins failed to deliver for much of the night despite outshooting Montreal 30-18.
"Carey Price was outstanding," said Julien. "He gave them a chance to win every night."
The Canadiens started fast and then stymied the Bruins, winners of the Presidents' Trophy for the best regular-season record, to move deeper in the playoffs.
Jarome Iginla's goal, which cut the Canadiens' lead to 2-1 with 2:08 remaining in the second, set the scene for a dramatic third period.
Iginla, pouncing on a rare Price rebound, hit the post early on. Boston pressed but the Canadiens held fast and Price, improving his record in elimination games in 2014 to 5-0 including the Olympics, was rock-solid with a disciplined team defending in front of him.
The late Boston surge was not helped by a Johnny Boychuk penalty for interference with 4:31 remaining. Montreal scored on the ensuing power play when Briere's centring pass bounced in off Zdeno Chara's skate at 18:07 to pad the lead to 3-1.
Montreal killed off a late interference penalty to Andrei Markov—and a 6-on-4 Boston opportunity—to seal the win.
The game drew two sellouts: 17,565 at TD Garden and some 21,000 at the Bell Centre, where fans paid $10 to watch the game on the video scoreboard with proceeds going to charity.
They saw a contest in which both teams seemed at times weighed down by the occasion early on, knowing there could be an entire off-season to ponder a costly mistake.
"It's disappointing," said Julien. "I can't stand here and say it's not disappointing. In my mind, we were going to move forward. We were going to win this game and that's what I prepared myself for."
The series has been a roller-coaster ride with no shortage of subplots, most of which involved Subban whose star continues to grow. When he wasn't firing bullets from the blue-line or skating circles, the flamboyant Canadiens defenceman was dodging water aimed his way from the Boston bench and dealing with racism on social media.
Subban embraced the attention and found himself in the spotlight again ahead of Game 7 when he pointed to the crowd, noise and energy in Boston's TD Garden before saying: "I can't wait to take that all away from them."
Subban focused on the task at hand Wednesday, forgoing the flash.
In a series where the team scoring the first goal had won all six previous outings, a fast start was mandatory. Especially when teams scoring first in Game 7s were 112-40 (.737).
Advantage Montreal as the visitors went ahead on their first shot, thanks to the fourth line, at 2:18 after Tuukka Rask kicked out what looked like an innocent long shoot-in. But Brandon Prust retrieved the puck and found Briere who sent a pass through Matt Bartkowski and Daniel Paille in front. Weise swept it in from Rask's doorstep.
Boychuk and Gregory Campbell both tried to hit Prust on the play, opening space for others.
The second period started poorly for Boston with Marchand sent to the penalty box for unsportsmanlike conduct for a snow shower aimed at Price. That call prompted garbage thrown from the stands.
Boston dug itself out of that hole and looked to fight back. But it was the Canadiens who scored at 10:22 after Boston failed to clear its zone. A diving Brandon Gallagher somehow found five-foot-seven David Desharnais, who emerged with the puck after Loui Eriksson, Soderberg and Bergeron failed to deal with it. Desharnais headed towards goal but rather than shooting, sent a no-look pass to Pacioretty to his right. The Montreal sniper rifled a shot into the goal before Rask could slide to the other side of the crease.
Desharnais, under fire for his sub-par performance for much of the series, had a whale of game.
Boston finally beat Price on the power play on an Iginla tip of a Torey Krug shot at 17:58. The goal, which came with seven seconds left in a Pacioretty penalty, ended Price's shutout streak of 103 minutes 46 seconds.
The series was the 34th between the Bruins and Canadiens and marked the ninth time—a record in North American pro sports—that a Game 7 was required. Montreal now holds a 6-3 advantage.
The Bruins had the last laugh last time out, with Nathan Horton scoring at 5:43 of overtime to give Boston a 4-3 victory in the 2011 Eastern Conference quarter-finals. Boston went on to win the Stanley Cup.
Montreal upped its advantage to 25-9 in the playoff meetings between the two Original Six rivals.
It's the first Conference final for the Habs since 2010 when they fell to the Flyers in a five-game series. And only their second since 1993 when they won their last Stanley Cup.
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Note to readers: This is a corrected story. A previous version said Montreal held a 5-4 advantage over the Bruins in Game 7 matchups.