MONTREAL – So close and yet so far.
That was how defenceman Josh Gorges felt after the Montreal Canadiens were eliminated from the NHL playoffs with a 1-0 loss in Game 6 to the Rangers in New York on Thursday night.
It was a second trip to the Eastern Conference final for Gorges, who was there in 2010 when the Canadiens lost to Philadelphia after upsetting Washington and Pittsburgh in the first two rounds.
His disappointment at bowing out again without reaching the Stanley Cup final was evident.
“This harder to accept because I can see the window of opportunity closing bit by bit,” said the 29-year-old Gorges. “The older you get, the more you realize how difficult it is. We were so close.”
At the start of the season, it was widely felt the Canadiens would be among the group of teams having to battle for the final playoff spots, but an 11-3-1 spurt down the stretch saw them finish with 100 points, good for fourth in the conference.
Then they swept the Tampa Bay Lightning in the opening round of playoffs and upset their biggest rival, the first-place Boston Bruins, in a heated, seven-game conference semifinal before bowing out to the Rangers.
More than one player noted when the playoff run was over that the team has a bright future, although coach Michel Therrien didn’t want to think about next year so soon after a bitter defeat.
“It’s really tough talking about the entire season, because I know it’s like when you get close to achieving a goal, it hurts,” he said. “It hurts more when you’re close.
“There are 29 teams this year that are going to be disappointed, and one team is going to be enjoying their season while winning the Stanley Cup. That is the purpose. But I look at the season and we made some big progress this year. I’m proud of this hockey team. We battled hard through the regular season and we battled hard in the playoffs.”
The players are to have their exit interviews on Saturday and general manager Marc Bergevin will review the season with the media on Monday morning.
There are likely to be changes.
Bergevin’s priority will no doubt be signing star defenceman P.K. Subban to what could be a major multi-year contract. The 25-year-old who won the Norris Trophy in the lockout-shortened 2012-13 campaign and who leads the team in ice time is due to become a restricted free agent on July 1.
Negotiations may be difficult, with Subban likely to end up among the league’s highest-paid players, even if a rival team doesn’t make him an offer.
Other potential RFAs are centre Lars Eller, who had a disappointing regular season but was second on the team in playoff scoring, late-season pickup and playoff surprise Dale Weise and forward Ryan White, who didn’t see any playoff action.
He must also decide whether to try to keep unrestricted free agents Andrei Markov, Brian Gionta, Thomas Vanek, Mike Weaver, Francis Bouillon, Douglas Murray and George Parros.
Markov, a mainstay on the defence since 2000, is 35 and, while he is still a skilled and heady playmaker, has become slower on his skates. It’s somewhat the same for Gionta, the 35-year-old captain whose points production is on the wane.
Vanek has said repeatedly he will test the free agent market and Bergevin will need to decide whether to bid for him.
Weaver, another late-season acquisition, is 36 but Bergevin may make the third-pair defenceman an offer because of his solid post-season play. He earned $1.1 million this season.
Bouillon’s history with Therrien goes back to junior hockey, but the stocky defenceman is 38 and may have reached the end of his career. It would be surprising if the painfully slow Murray and little-used enforcer Parros were back.
Decisions on defence will be influenced by young blue-liners who may be ready to be full-time NHL players, including Nathan Beaulieu, Jarred Tinordi and Greg Pateryn, who had 15 goals for the AHL Hamilton Bulldogs.
Bergevin will also need to sort out his goaltending.
When Carey Price was injured in the opening game of the conference final, Therrien turned to third-stringer Dustin Tokarski over back-up Peter Budaj. Tokarski played brilliantly and looks to have taken over the back-up job, but Budaj has a year left on a contract that pays $1.4 million.
Players signed long-term include Price, Gorges, Alexei Emelin, David Desharnais and Max Pacioretty.
The easy one will be signing a new deal with Therrien, whose two-year contract is up. Bergevin has already hinted that he will keep the 50-year-old coach.
— With files from Canadian Press sports reporter Bill Beacon.