MONTREAL -- The Montreal Canadiens went out with their heads high.
They entered the series against the Carolina Hurricanes as underdogs and lost their captain, Saku Koivu, in Game 3.
Last night, they threw everything they had at the Hurricanes. In fact, they can't play much better.
But it wasn't enough. Early in overtime, the Hurricanes capitalized on one small mistake and scored on a deflected shot to win 2-1, taking the best-of-seven Eastern Conference quarter-final in six games. The Hurricanes, who will face the New Jersey Devils in an Eastern Conference semi-final, rallied from a 2-0 series deficit against the Canadiens.
Cory Stillman was the hero for the Hurricanes, who played a very good game themselves. The Canadiens came at them in waves and it would have surprised no one had they crumpled under the pressure.
Instead, the Hurricanes countered Sheldon Souray's first-period goal with a goal of their own only 30 seconds later.
Mathieu Dandenault coughed up the puck in the corner and Eric Staal slid it to Mark Recchi in the slot. Recchi deftly kicked the puck on to his stick and beat Canadiens goalie Cristobal Huet with a quick snapshot that he didn't seem to be expecting.
There was no further scoring until Stillman eliminated the Canadiens at 1:19 of overtime -- not that he had expected any other outcome.
"There was no doubt in my mind," he said. "Obviously we didn't play well in the first two games. We gave up six goals a game and you're not going to win that way.
"I think the biggest thing was to win here. We won Game 3 and we got momentum back and the biggest thing when you get momentum is to keep it.
"The other side is you need big goaltending and that's what we got."
They certainly did. Martin Gerber was awful in the first two games, allowing nine goals in less than 75 minutes. But then rookie Cam Ward came and turned it all around.
"The biggest thing is he's making saves," Stillman said, "and the other thing is, when the puck is being shot in, he's making the right play.
"With the trapezoid behind the net, the goalies are not allowed to come out as much, but he did a great job setting it up for our defencemen, moving it out to our defencemen and allowing us to get it out of our own zone."
On the winner, the Canadiens failed to put the puck deep before their line change. Rod Brind'Amour picked it up in the neutral zone and passed to Stillman, who stepped over the blue line and blasted a shot past Huet.
Craig Rivet tried to block the shot but it hit his stick and changed directions.
It was a disciplined play by the Hurricanes and it paid dividends.
"When we're playing well, we make the right decisions," Stillman said, "and when we do that, we're a good team. We get pucks behind defencemen and play below the blue line. Who knows what will happen? And we beat them with a 50-footer."
In the Montreal room, there was dejection, but there also was pride.
"We battled tremendously," forward Garth Murray said. "Every game we lost was a one-goal game -- and two in overtime. We lost a key player and kept on battling right to the end. But that makes it even more disappointing."
Chris Higgins, who is Koivu's linemate when all goes well, said, "We did all right and we worked hard, but we probably didn't produce as much as we would have with Saku.
"The guys who came in (Radek Bonk and Steve Begin) had different styles than Saku and it's tough to change that up in the playoffs.
"Our best player went down but we gave them all they could handle and fought through it right to the overtime there. They're a good team."