Habs shed Cinderella label heading into East final

BROSSARD, Quebec -- The Montreal Canadiens insist that the Cinderella label never quite fit them. But the fact that their formidable first two opponents in these 2010 Stanley Cup Playoffs believed the Habs wore glass slippers (skates?) certainly worked in their favor.

There will be no such misperceptions nor underestimations anymore. Whether the Boston Bruins or Philadelphia Flyers emerge from Friday night's Game 7 showdown, they will enter the Eastern Conference Final appropriately respectful of the Canadiens, who no longer are considered outmanned stepping stones by anybody.

The question is: Can the Canadiens make the transition from prohibitive underdog whose every minor victory is considered a miracle to perceived contenders whose jacked-up fan base now expects to advance?

They began the process this morning at the Bell Sportsplex. Fans were packed five deep around the balcony viewing area to watch the Canadiens return to practice after a much-needed day off Thursday following Wednesday night's emotional Game 7 triumph over the defending champion Penguins in Pittsburgh.

"I think the dynamic changes for a lot of people around the series," said winger Michael Cammalleri, who leads the playoffs with 12 goals. "And I think it probably changes as far as the mentality of the opponent. But for us, it has to stay the same.

"We've had some success because we've been a hard-working group that has played together and relied upon one another. That's the only way we're going to have more success. So nothing changes for us that way.

"Will it be a challenge to keep that focus? I don't know. Only time will tell. But we do know that we have to play that way."

That might be a defense-first way. But as the Canadiens showed ever since falling behind 2-1 going into the third period in Game 4 against the Penguins, only to rally back for a victory that kept them out of a 3-1 series hole, they also can rev it up offensively when necessary.

Still, don't expect them to open the Eastern Conference Final on Sunday night wanting to trade chances -- even if they no longer look at the opponent and see a profound firepower discrepancy.

"I don't think it changes anything for us," said defenseman Josh Gorges, who along with partner Hal Gill and checking center Dominic Moore, was kept off the ice today for an extra dose of physical recovery from the Pittsburgh series -- banged-up defenseman Andrei Markov participated in the entire practice. "We know what we have to do. We know what this team has to do to be successful.

"No matter who we're facing, they have talented players that can score. So we have to have the same commitment to defense no matter who we're playing.

"Yeah, we might not be thought of as a team that is going to get swept and walked all over. But we can't so much focus on what other teams are going to do. And I think that's one thing that has made us successful in the first two series: we focused on what we needed to do to be successful. And we have to have that same mentality in the next round."

Another thing that has contributed to the Canadiens' success: They simply haven't bought into the notion that they've been overmatched in these playoffs.

Where much of the hockey world saw an unimpressive record and inability to clinch a playoff berth until their final game of the regular season, the Canadiens saw the slow, often painstaking process of a team coming together after a major offseason roster overhaul and through major injuries to several key players.

"We're a tough team to beat and we knew that from the beginning," center Scott Gomez said after the decisive victory at Pittsburgh. "Everyone's making us out to be Cinderella. But deep down, everyone in this room knew that we're a better team than we showed in the regular season.

"Once we got in the dance, we kept saying, 'You don't want to play us.'"