Since we’re all craving a taste of the NHL playoffs right now, let’s take a trip down memory lane and relive what was an eventful 2009-10 season for the Montreal Canadiens. The team celebrated its historic centennial season with an impressive run to the Eastern Conference Final that will be etched in the memories of Habs fans for a lifetime.
A wave of change began in the offseason when owner George Gillet put the franchise up for sale and eventually came to an agreement with a group led by Geoff Molson just before puck drop in October. Change also swept through the front office as general manager Bob Gainey stepped down after seven years at the helm in Feb. 2010 and Pierre Gauthier was named his replacement. Behind the bench, new head coach Jacques Martin and assistant Perry Pearn teamed with Kirk Muller.
Before leaving, Gainey overhauled the roster during the summer of 2009, starting with the acquisition of Scott Gomez in a blockbuster trade with the New York Rangers. He then went on a spending spree on day one of free agency, signing Michael Cammalleri, Hal Gill, Brian Gionta, and Jaroslav Spacek. Travis Moen and Paul Mara were also put under contract soon after. Gone were Saku Koivu, Alex Kovalev, Alex Tanguay, and Patrice Brisebois.
First Round: Alex Ovechkin and the Washington Capitals
Despite a season marred by injuries, a late-season surge in March, highlighted by a six-game win streak, allowed the Canadiens to squeeze into the playoffs as the No. 8 seed in the Eastern Conference and earned themselves a matchup against the Washington Capitals, winners of the President’s Trophy and a team that finished 33 points ahead of the Habs in the standings.
After stealing Game 1 on the road in Washington, Montreal proceeded to lose the next three games and appeared destined for elimination in the first round. Trailing 3-1 in the series, they won the next three games thanks to the heroics of goaltender Jaroslav Halak, which included a 53-save performance in Game 6. The tight defensive structure employed by Martin as well as some timely shot blocking by the likes of Hall Gill and Josh Gorges kept the Capitals at bay, especially on the power play, even though Alex Ovechkin and Nicklas Backstrom combined for 19 points in the series.
Dominic Moore scored the winning goal in Game 7 to give the Canadiens a 2-1 victory and complete the improbable comeback. It marked just the second time in franchise history that the team erased a 3-1 series deficit in the playoffs.
Second Round: Sidney Crosby and the Pittsburgh Penguins
It didn’t get any easier with Sidney Crosby and the Pittsburgh Penguins looming in Round 2 and once again the series needed all seven games before being decided.
The two teams traded victories in the first six games with Montreal staving off elimination for a fourth time in Game 6 on the strength of a 4-3 win on home ice. Back in Pittsburgh for Game 7, the Canadiens remained undefeated in elimination contests in these playoffs thanks to an impressive 5-2 triumph to book their place in the Conference Finals for the first time since 1993, the year of their most recent Stanley Cup win.
In Game 7, Mike Cammalleri potted the game-winner, his seventh goal of the series, which tied a club record. He went on to lead all playoff scorers with 13 tallies in 19 games, becoming the first Canadiens’ player to do so since Jacques Lemaire in 1979. In Game 6, Cammalleri scored a pair of goals including a backhand top corner to tie the game at 2-2, which prompted the fans in the Bell Centre to give a three-minute standing ovation that lasted through the TV timeout.
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“It was a big goal for us to tie the game up, we were in Game 6 in the series and there was a timeout that happened shortly after this, so I think it was 8 seconds in the playoffs. It just speaks to the Habs’ fans and the Habs fan base and the excitement of this series and this time in all our lives,” Cammalleri said while reminiscing about one of the greatest Canadiens moments of the past decade on Hometown Hockey in January.
Conference Finals: Flyers End Canadiens’ Magical Run
Next up for the Canadiens was a big, physical Philadelphia Flyers team that had just knocked out the Boston Bruins in seven games after trailing 3-0 in the series. The Flyers continued their hot streak on the strength of a stingy defense led by goaltender Michael Leighton, outscoring Montreal 9-0 in the first two games of the Conference Finals. The Canadiens stormed back with a dominant 5-1 victory in Game 3 at the Bell Centre, but lost the next two games to see their Cinderella run come to an end at the last hurdle before the Stanley Cup Final.
Besides Cammalleri’s goal-scoring prowess, Halak was the Canadiens MVP during the 2010 Playoffs. After winning 26 games in the regular season, he went 9-9 in the playoffs with a goals-against average of 2.55 and a .923 save percentage, making a total of 563 saves in 18 games, or an average of 31 saves per game.
Halak’s performance during the 2009-10 season launched the now-famous “Price or Halak” debate. While the Canadiens ultimately decided that Carey Price was their future No. 1 goaltender, Halak certainly gave fans memories that won’t soon be forgotten during those magical 2010 Playoffs and he will forever be a big part of the team’s rich history because of that.