Originally created 04/10/00

Montreal misses playoffs again



MONTREAL -- This is the headquarters office of the Stanley Cup, where the Canadiens have won the NHL title more than any team.

But on Saturday night there were tears in the locker room. For the first time since 1922, the Canadiens are out of the playoffs for two straight years.

"We're disappointed, we were one game short," forward Benoit Brunet said after a season-ending 3-1 loss to Ottawa. "But a lot of people put us out of it three months ago."

Sergei Zholtok, who scored 26 goals this season, was unable to speak when approached.

"With what we went through, I'm proud of this team," defenseman Eric Weinrich said. "We had guys who proved they can play in this league this year."

All along, the Canadiens thought their hard work and selfless play would carry them to the postseason.

Three months ago, the Canadiens were near the bottom of the Eastern Conference, plagued by injuries that would end up costing them a record 536 man-games this season.

Right wing Brian Savage took an open-ice check at Los Angeles that left him with three fractured neck vertebrae.

Forward Trent McCleary, called up to replace injured players, needed life-saving surgery after being hit in the throat by a puck while blocking a shot.

The Canadiens were without their top defenseman, Vladimir Malakhov, and best center, Saku Koivu. Their No. 2 center, Trevor Linden, was hobbled by a sprained ankle.

But they didn't quit.

"We came together as a family and as a team this year," said forward Shayne Corson, who served as captain while Koivu missed 57 games. "If they keep it together, we'll be better next year. But you don't know what moves will be made."

Remarkable performances came from unlikely sources. Zholtok led the team in goals. A simple, defense-first strategy worked. The results were encouraging: The Canadiens went 23-11-4-3 in the second half of the season.

They entered the final weekend needing to beat Ottawa and have their nearest rival, Buffalo, either lose or tie at Washington. The Sabres did their part, earning a 1-1 tie with the Capitals.

But that was after the Senators settled the issue. Ottawa outplayed Montreal, with early scoring chances stopped by Senators goaltender Patrick Lalime.

Forward Oleg Petrov, back after three seasons in Switzerland, was another surprising leader, as was checking center Craig Darby.

Goaltending was key on a team that posted one of the league's top defensive records. Jose Theodore got it started in January, with veteran Jeff Hackett taking over for the stretch run.

A month ago, prospects brightened for the Canadiens. The injured began to return and Malakhov was traded to New Jersey for defenseman Sheldon Souray. But Montreal lost Koivu and Linden that same week.

"Among the guys who were together, we built a nice bond," Weinrich said. "Everybody played for everybody else.

"There were no individuals. We just hope they keep us together and the guys who were hurt can rebound next year."