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After rough ending, Habs aim to bounce back

The way last season ended for the Montreal Canadiens, the organization and its fans were left wondering, "What if?"

 

What if just one of the three overtime games in their first-round series with the Boston Bruins had gone their way?

What if Tim Thomas hadn't made an incredible save in double overtime of Game 5 to prevent the Habs from taking a 3-2 series edge?

And the biggest question of all: What if Montreal had been able to put the B's away after returning home with a 2-0 series lead? If it had, the Stanley Cup Playoffs would have had an entirely different look, and hockey's greatest prize would be residing somewhere other than in Boston.

Fans of hockey's most historic franchise would like to think that perhaps the Cup would have found its way to Montreal for a record 25th time. While a Game 7 OT loss at TD Garden assured that it wouldn't, fans of the Bleu-Blanc-Rouge can look forward to the same nucleus of a team that should be back in the championship hunt again this season.

Carey Price is coming off a career year in goal, defenseman P.K. Subban looks to build on a stellar rookie campaign and a host of very capable forwards return, with one major addition in Erik Cole. Once free agency began on July 1, general manager Pierre Gauthier took but a few hours to ink Montreal's most significant acquisition of the offseason, signing Cole to a four-year, $18 million contract. With no key players leaving, several crucial components returning and Cole added to the roster, the Canadiens have the potential to be as dangerous as any team in the Eastern Conference.

     

After calling the Bell Centre home for the past four years, defenseman Roman Hamrlik rejected Montreal's new contract offer and signed a two-year, $7 million pact with the Washington Capitals. The Czech Republic native played at least 75 games in each of his four seasons with the Habs, tallying 22 goals and 97 assists overall. Three other blueliners also won't be returning: Alexandre Picard (Pittsburgh), Brent Sopel (KHL) and James Wisniewski, who was traded to the Columbus Blue Jackets for a fifth-round pick.

But despite Hamrlik's durability and veteran presence, his departure shouldn't be a substantial setback as the club was able to re-sign defensemen Andrei Markov, Josh Gorges, and Hal Gill. Markov, who inked a three-year deal, is the key player of those three, as the Canadiens hope he can bounce back strong from a knee injury that required surgery and forced him to miss practically all of last season. If healthy, he could be paired with Subban on defense to create an extremely formidable duo, and should also be an important contributor on the power play.

Josh Gorges suffered the same injury as Markov -- and subsequently required the same surgery --  and will also look to rebound after playing just 36 games last season. He and Gill each received one-year contracts, and the two could be the second defensive pair behind Subban/Markov.

On the offensive side, three forwards from last season's squad have all moved on to Eastern foes: Tom Pyatt (Lightning), Benoit Pouliot (Bruins), and Jeff Halpern (Capitals). But just as they did with the defense, the Habs re-signed various players to help offset the departures. Max Pacioretty, Andrei Kostitsyn, Mathieu Darche and Ryan White will all return for the 2011-12 season, and while Darche and White will most likely be restricted to fourth-line play, Pacioretty and Kostitsyn should figure prominently into boosting the team's offense.

With 14 goals and 10 assists in 37 games last season, Pacioretty was having a solid third season in the NHL until suffering a season-ending neck injury and a concussion on March 8 against Boston. However, the Habs "are confident that he will have fully recovered" by the time the season starts, Gauthier said. Kostitsyn, who signed a one-year deal, reached the 20-goal plateau for the third time in his career last year, with six of his 20 goals serving as game-winners.

 

Between the pipes, the Canadiens lost their backup, Alex Auld, who signed with another team north of the border, the Ottawa Senators. Auld appeared in 16 games last season, receiving a decision in just half of them, as Price handled the lion's share of the workload.

Cole is the centerpiece of the Canadiens' offseason acquisitions. The 32-year-old winger gives the Habs the scoring touch they sorely needed, as well as size and power down low. He had 26 goals and 26 assists in 82 games last season for the Hurricanes, and has posted 184 goals and 206 assists in 620 NHL games. The Oswego, N.Y., native had spent his entire career with Carolina with the exception of the 2008-09 campaign, when he notched 16 goals and 11 assists in 63 games with the Oilers before he was dealt back to the 'Canes at the trade deadline.

 

Cole is already familiar with a couple of his new teammates, as he played with Scott Gomez and Brian Gionta on the U.S. Olympic team at the 2006 Winter Games in Turin, Italy. Later that season, he broke a vertebra in his neck, but still managed to return to the ice for Games 6 and 7 of the Stanley Cup Final, helping the Hurricanes to a 3-1 win in Game 7 and the franchise's only championship.

The other significant arrival for the Habs came on the same day they signed Cole. With Auld gone and a backup goaltender needed, Gauthier signed former Avalanche netminder Peter Budaj to a two-year deal. With a career record of 101-91-27 and a 2.83 goals-against average, the 28-year-old has been more than a typical backup in his six NHL seasons, appearing in over 30 games five times. He most likely won't see as much action behind Price in Montreal, but it's always comforting when a club knows the backup goalie can step in for an extended period of time, if necessary.

Besides Cole and Budaj, the only other acquisition the Habs made in the offseason is one that might sneak up on the rest of the League. In mid-May, the club announced the signing of Russian defenseman Alexei Yemelin to a one-year, two-way contract. Yemelin, the 84th pick at the 2004 Entry Draft, played in the KHL for the past three seasons, breaking out in 2010-11 with 11 goals in 52 games. The 25-year-old fits in with the theme of adding size to this Canadiens team, standing 6-foot-2 and weighing 223 pounds. While he will be making his NHL debut, he is no stranger to the big stage, playing on the Russian team that captured silver at the 2010 World Championship and on the squad that won the silver medal at the 2006 World Junior Championship in Vancouver.

 

With power-play and penalty-kill units that each ranked seventh in the League last year, a team goals-against-average that placed eighth and a goals-per-game average that was 22nd, it was obvious where the Habs needed help. Bringing Cole in should vastly improve the team's scoring. But, as with any club, questions still linger.

 

Perhaps the biggest question mark hangs over the head of Gomez, who undeniably comes off the worst season of his career. In 80 games, he set career lows with 7 goals, 31 assists, 38 points, and a minus-15 rating. With some new talent around him, can he regain his old form as he enters his third season in Montreal?

On the flip side, Price had undoubtedly the best season of his career in 2010-11. He won 38 of the 72 games he appeared in, posting a 2.35 GAA and a .923 save percentage, all career highs. By all accounts, the 25-year-old should be able to maintain similar numbers going forward in his career. But it was only a couple of seasons ago when Jaroslav Halak took over the starting duties from Price, and last year was the first time Price played in over 52 games. Will he continue to grow as a netminder as his responsibilities increase, or will flashes of his past creep into his play? The success of any team starts and ends with its goalie, so the Canadiens can go as far as Price will take them.

The questions regarding Gomez, Price and the rest of the Canadiens will all be answered between October and April. Assuming the Habs make it past April -- and they certainly have the weapons to do so -- they hope this time they won't be left asking themselves, "What if?"