With their backs to the wall, and bolstered by a strong sense of urgency, the Canadiens gathered all the elements of their A game and finally disposed of a relentless Boston Bruins team with a telling 5 - 0 blanking of their longtime division rivals.
Kudo's to the Bruins for making the series into something few imagined it would be - close.
It should be a good while before anyone, Canadiens players included, takes them lightly again.
Montreal are a young team that has made a giant leap within the span of one season. Going from a perceived post season afterthought to a conference champion in seven quick months is an achievement that brought with it certain levels of doubt as to their playoff toughness.
"Yes, these kids are good, young and talented", many seemed to think, "but can they handle the grind?"
The Canadiens seemed to answer the playoff bell just as they had tackled the regular season's final string of games - with confidence and a seeming air of ease. They quickly jumped out to a two games to none lead over the Bruins, and some players might have been guilty of believing the series would be a short one.
While the high flying Habs were cruising the freeway on the Drive to 25, they failed to check the rear view mirror. Taking up the blind spot, and closer than they appeared, were a Bruins team that was beginning to learn what it takes to beat the Canadiens.
After gaining inches on the Habs, the Bruins started taking bigger chunks, and by the sixth game appeared to have wrestled the momentum of the series away from the Canadiens by winning 3 of 4 games.
Montreal, who had beaten Boston thirteen times in succession, had to relearn what it took to vanquish a much better Bruins team, one armed with newfound confidence and poised with a never before seen killer instinct.
Along the way, adversity in the form of a missing captain, a bruised defense, and a power play gone AWOL offered challenges that the team would need to overcome.
A Game 7 stage was set, in which the questions regarding what these Canadiens were truly made of, would be answered.
Were they too inexperienced or too young to handle the pressure a long series had brought on?
Were they too much of a skilled team, too soft, as opposed to a group of hardened warriors, and perhaps incapable of outlasting a tougher team?
Would they rely too much on goaltender Carey Price, and in turn how often could Price be relied upon at 20 years old?
Were the Canadiens being outcoached?
Were the Canadiens players guilty of lacking focus?
In varying degrees, the answers brought on by a conclusive Game 7 win were resounding. In a contest in which the boys in bleu, blanc, rouge, outshot, outhustled, outhit, and blanked the Bruins when everything was on the line, many doubts were erased for the time being.
Evidently, this team brings it when it matters most.
Yes, their focus during the series did seem to stray. As the Canadiens have many younger elements, isn't it only natural that they learn as they go?
Guy Carbonneau was outcoached for a stretch during the round, but did make the proper adjustments in the final count. In truth, credit should be spread to both coaches for an entertaining series. As followers of the series were in fact quite surprised by the resillience and potency of a Bruins team that hadn't shown such teeth all season, so was Carbonneau. He also learned as he went along, and with experience and a deeper knowledge of what his team is capable of, he will learn to adjust sooner to changing paces.
By games 5 and 6, the Canadiens had begun to rely too much on Price, to the extent where they took his performance for granted. Left to themselves, goalies rarely win games, and Price is no exception. He can be counted upon under extreme pressure, as he's proven before, but he cannot do it alone.
The Canadiens are a skilled group, and can also be a battling and gritty team at times. They needed both these aspects to win this series and these elements overlap in certain players more than others. The Canadiens are better off when players stick to doing what they do best. The grinders are never asked to become skillfull dazzlers, and the offensive players shouldn't be compromising their speed and playmaking abilities in order to settle into a trap.
What is asked of the skilled set is to skate hard at all times, finish checks consistently, go to the net with conviction, and be responsible with the puck. That they did not do all of this on a constant basis throughout seven games shouldn't qualify them as soft. Experience will teach these players that they cannot get away with the same type of freelancing that works in the regular season.
No doubt about it, certain Canadiens players are inexperienced and young in terms of NHL years. But more and more, it is becoming a younger man's game, and they need to be allowed room for error in order to understand how to succeed. The pressure that comes with the playoffs is the reason they play the game. For certain young Canadiens players, the high stakes just makes for more fun, and their fearless immaturity only serves to keep them loose at a time when that might just be what they need most.
Over the course of the series, there was the opinion that for this team on the rise, some hard lessons would be good for them. Anything coming too easily would not add to their experience and prepare them for what comes next.
They can now all claim to have bonded together to find within them what it has taken to win a seventh game. Some players wait for years to reap from that opportunity. The Canadiens can also take comfort in knowning that they have what it takes to wrestle the momentum of a series back in their favor when pressed for results.
There is a silver lining in losses inherent in how players gain from them. Excuses don't hold much water come playoff time. This group of Canadiens were able to learn great things about themselves individually in this series, and still move on.
After the game, captain Saku Koivu was questioned about whether the Canadiens are a better team for having come out winners. His answer was spoken from the playoff warrior's mindset.
Koivu termed the team now more psychologically prepared for the next step. As he explained it, the Canadiens do not come out more talented, just wiser. The Canadiens players know they are a good group, but beyond their regular season merits, they had yet to win anything.
Now that they have won a round, they will gather confidence from it, and build upon it, knowing that they now know better what it takes to succeed. The psychological angle the captain spoke of, could be likened to a mental wall where confidence is at times fragile and doubt lingers until one is on the other side.
The Canadiens players, the younger ones and the grisled vets, have taken a step together, passed a test, and earned the right to move on.
Much of what was new to them in beating Boston, shall never be new again. They are better off for it, just like it was hoped they'd be.