MONTREAL - As the 2007-08 Bruins filed out of the visitors' dressing room at the Bell Centre for one final time last night, they emerged with clean cheeks and chins, their battered faces clipped clear of the traditional whiskers that playoff competitors grow.
The Bruins' captivating, hard-hitting, longer-than-expected season had come to an end.
To a man, they noted how proud they were of each other. They were a bruised and underestimated bunch that went toe-to-toe with the top-seeded Canadiens, a run-and-gun, teeming-with-skill club that had claimed 10 consecutive meetings (eight in the regular season, two in the playoffs).
But for as high as the Bruins held their heads, the sting of a 5-0 loss in Game 7 before 21,273 frenzied fans hurt more than a one-timer to the teeth.
"I don't think anybody in this locker room thought we'd be done tonight," said Tim Thomas (30 saves on 35 shots). "The belief was there. It was on my part. It was on everybody's part that we would keep this thing going."
But after wiping out a 3-1 Montreal series lead by claiming Games 5 and 6, the Bruins couldn't stand up to the Montreal attack, which finally got rolling last night, putting the game out of reach with two decisive second-period goals.
On the other end, rookie goalie Carey Price, who allowed a total of 10 goals in his last two starts, bricked up his net, stopping every one of Boston's 25 shots to record his second shutout of the series.
So as Montreal advances (the Canadiens will host either the Flyers or Rangers this week), the Bruins go home, perhaps a few weeks later than expected. Even without Patrice Bergeron, Manny Fernandez, and Andrew Alberts for most of the season - and throw in injuries to Chuck Kobasew, Glen Murray, and Zdeno Chara (the captain finally admitted last night having a banged-up left shoulder) - the Bruins sprinted into the postseason and threw a barrage of punches to the Canadiens' gut before Montreal finally won the bout.
"I think we proved a lot of people wrong," Milan Lucic said. "It's a good feeling to have, proving a lot of people wrong. I think we can build a lot on what we did this year and carry it on to next year."
When they look back - coach Claude Julien, perhaps the biggest reason for Boston's revival this season, said such reflection might take place in a few days or a week - the Bruins will shudder at a first period in which they threw 11 pucks at Price and came away with nothing. Phil Kessel cranked three shots on net. Marc Savard hammered a slapper from the slot. David Krejci put three pucks on goal. Price stopped them all.
Meanwhile, a fortuitous bounce gave Montreal a 1-0 lead after the first 20 minutes. Winger Alex Kovalev, drifting up the right-side wall, hit Michael Komisarek at the left point, and the defenseman put a soft shot on goal. But the puck deflected off the stick of Petteri Nokelainen, changed directions, and skittered past Thomas at 3:31.
"They got that little tip goal, but I thought we brought it," Savard said. "We had some chances and Price made some big saves. We just didn't bury them. It's tough because guys battled hard. We really believed as a group that we could go on."
In the second period, Montreal made the Bruins pay for their inability to find the back of the net.
The Canadiens doubled their lead after forward Maxim Lapierre entered the offensive zone with speed and dished to Mark Streit, who dangled around Chara, threw a slight fake on Thomas, and got the goalie to open his pads for a wrister at 10:45.
At 13:12, Chara was sent to the box for holding. The Bruins killed off the penalty, but one second after Chara stepped out of the box, forward Andrei Kostitsyn banged in a shot from the slot, making it a 3-0 game.
"It just seemed that in the second period, when they scored that next goal, we just started forcing things," Julien said. "The more we did that, the worse it got. It was really about composure, and tonight we weren't able to hold our composure in the second half. That definitely made matters worse."
The Bruins still had chances to claw back into the game. With 1:05 remaining in the second, Kovalev was called for hooking, giving Boston its fourth power play. In the third period, defenseman Francis Bouillon was nabbed for boarding Kessel at 1:22, and forward Sergei Kostitsyn was sent off for high-sticking at 4:17. But the Bruins couldn't score on any of their six power plays, getting only eight man-advantage shots through to Price.
"They did a pretty good job all series of blocking shots," said Marco Sturm about the Canadiens, who were credited with 23 blocks (four apiece for Komisarek and defenseman Roman Hamrlik). "They collapsed pretty much five guys in front of the net. It was tough to get some pucks through."
At 17:58 of the third, with Savard in the box for goaltender interference, Andrei Kostitsyn scored his second goal. Brother Sergei closed out the scoring at 19:52, setting off the frenzied Habs fans.
"You don't like that feeling," Chara said of the game's final seconds. "It's one of those feelings you don't ever want to feel again."