A surprising regular season that saw them go from last in the NHL Eastern Conference a year ago to second place with a 29-14-5 record in the lockout-shortened 2013 campaign came to a crashing halt in the playoffs.
The Canadiens were ousted in only five games by the seventh-seeded Ottawa Senators, losing the final game in a 6-1 blowout on home ice on Thursday night.
Players looked to be in shock after the game that it could be over so soon.
"It's a heartbreaker," said winger Max Pacioretty. "A couple of bounces the other way and we come into (Game 5) up 3-1."
While the Canadiens felt they outplayed Ottawa in all but Game 3 — a fight-filled 6-1 defeat — they were outscored 20-9 in the series, including 13-0 in third periods and one overtime period.
The NHL's fourth-best attack in the regular season (3.04 goals per game) outshot Ottawa 172-147 in the series, but couldn't solve goaltender Craig Anderson or the big defencemen who cover the front of his net.
At the other end, shots that probably shouldn't have gone in squeaked past Carey Price, who suffered a suspected groin injury late in Game 4. Backup Peter Budaj was lit up for six goals on 29 shots in the series finale.
The story of the series played out in Game 1, when Montreal fired 50 shots at Anderson but lost the game 4-2. They also lost centre Lars Eller, who left behind a pool of blood as he was stretchered to an ambulance after an open-ice hit from Eric Gryba, who was suspended two games.
Forwards Brian Gionta, Brandon Prust and Ryan White also didn't finish the series with injuries, while Pacioretty missed Game 2 but toughed it through the rest despite a separated shoulder.
"The last two weeks we had a lot of bad luck," said coach Michel Therrien. "But our approach since Day 1 was that that was not an excuse.
"And I don't think the players used that as an excuse because every game, the way they prepared themselves and the way they started the games, I could tell that was not an excuse."
Now Canadiens management has to figure out what went wrong and what changes are needed for next season.
Montreal made wholesale changes after the 2011-12 debacle, replacing general manager Pierre Gauthier with Marc Bergevin. He brought in a new front office, extra support staff and new coaches, led by Therrien.
The team got better for many reasons, starting with remaining relatively healthy through the 48-game regular season.
Big strides were made by developing players like Norris trophy candidate P.K. Subban and physical defenceman Alexei Emelin, whose injury late in the season looked to disrupt the entire defence, especially his regular partner Andrei Markov.
It would not be a surprise if Bergevin went looking for more size and muscle at the back end this summer.
The team's most pleasant surprise was the play of rookie forwards Alex Galchenyuk, the third overall pick in the 2012 draft, and small but gritty Brendan Gallagher, a Calder Trophy nominee after a 15-goal season.
"Those two kids progressed all season long," said Therrien. "Even in the last month, they were a big factor to the team. I was really impressed with how they played in the playoffs."
Six-foot-six defenceman Jarred Tinordi also emerged late in the season and the playoffs as another promising rookie, while more blue-line talent awaits in the AHL in Nathan Beaulieu and Greg Pateryn.
Bergevin may also want more height and weight on his forward lines, where Gionta, Gallagher, Tomas Plekanec and David Desharnais all fall in the smaller-than-average category.
His addition of tough free agent Prust last summer was a hit, and the GM is likely to want more like him.
The Canadiens have 18 regulars signed for next season and may increase their cap space to the $9 million range if, as expected, they buy out unused rearguard Tomas Kaberle's final year at $4.2 million and if unrestricted free agent Michael Ryder, who makes $3.5 million, signs elsewhere.
Fourth-liner Colby Armstrong ($1 million), Jeff Halpern ($700,000), Petteri Nokelainen ($575,000) and defenceman Davis Drewiske ($616,000) can also be UFAs.
Their restricted free agents include White, who they will likely re-sign, and defenceman Yannick Weber, who they likely won't, as well as prospects Michael Blunden and Gabriel Dumont.
Despite the playoff setback, the Canadiens looked to have taken a step forward this season and should take another if, as expected, Galchenyuk emerges as a top points producer at centre and other young players like Gallagher and Eller continue to progress.
And with Subban's flash and dash rushing the puck and firing rockets from the point, they should be entertaining as well.Suggest a correction