Habs' future bright

CHRIS STEVENSON -- Ottawa Sun

, Last Updated: 12:20 PM ET

 MONTREAL -- It's not often -- especially here -- you would see a crowd come to its feet to salute the Canadiens with a minute to go in an opposition sweep.

 But that was the scene here as the Canadiens bowed out to the Tampa Bay Lightning in four straight games Thursday night, the crowd saluting the Canadiens for the final 50 seconds of the game including another chorus of Ole Ole Ole.

  After shaking hands with the Bolts -- clearly the better team in this series -- the Canadiens lingered on the ice. Goaltender Jose Theodore was called back out after heading for the dressing room and players raised their sticks to the crowd in acknowledgement of the support.

 The crowd thanked the team for a season in which the Canadiens overachieved. They weren't picked by many to even make the playoffs and there was a sense Thursday night the crowd was as excited as much by what they had seen as what might lie ahead.

 "They did something not too many places you can experience," said Canadiens captain Saku Koivu.

 The Canadiens advanced to the second round for the second time in three years.

 They did it the same way this time, ousting the heavily favoured Boston Bruins in the first round. They lost to the Carolina Hurricanes two springs ago and then missed the playoffs last year as Theodore had an off-year.

 What's different this time?

 The Canadiens took some serious steps forward this year in introducing some young players into their lineup, players like Michael Ryder, a rookie-of-the-year candidate, Jason Ward, and defenceman Mike Komisarek, and increasing the role of a player like Mike Ribiero.

 Ryder and Ward -- limited to only five playoff games because of a neck injury -- make the Habs bigger up front, a step in the right direction toward what is a perennial knock on the Canadiens.

 The addition of Alexei Kovalev at the trade deadline also made a big difference and one of the big questions will be if the potential unrestricted free agent will be back.

 (The bigger question is how will a new collective bargaining agreement affect all the free agents?)

 Kovalev makes in the area of $5 million a season and could become a free agent July 1, but could come cheaper under a new working agreement.

 After going missing for the first two games of the Boston series, Kovalev emerged as a difference maker for the Canadiens, scoring a team-leading six goals. His immense talent and style is appreciated by the discerning fans here.

 It was a two-way lovefest.

 "The fans supported me ever since I arrived here, from my first shift on the ice," said Kovalev. "That's certainly going to make me think twice when it comes to signing a contract as a free agent.

 "I love this organization, its rich history, and I like being surrounded by players who want to win.

 "This organization gave me a chance to show what I can do on the ice. They showed confidence in me and I really appreciated that."

 Koivu, Kovalev and Richard Zednik clicked to give the Habs a constant offensive threat even with Koivu playing with broken ribs and a bruised lung he suffered in the second game of the Boston series.

 KOIVU BATTERED

 "The trainers did an amazing job of protecting the area and I was able to play through it," said Koivu yesterday.

 The combination of new GM Bob Gainey and coach Claude Julien proved to be a winner for the Habs, with Julien squeezing close to maximum potential out of this team.

 Gainey's patience in sticking with Julien -- an unknown commodity to him when he took over the Habs last summer -- proved to be perhaps his best move of all.

 "If you don't win the Stanley Cup, you finish with a loss and that's tough to take," said Julien.

 But only for a little while. The Canadiens are still a long way from being a Stanley Cup contender, but they have taken steps toward giving their fans something to sing about.


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