Canadiens left wondering what could have been

May 30, 2014, 2:23 AM

NEW YORK — Little Daniel Briere, from Gatineau, Que., has lived out his childhood dreams many times over. He’s travelled the world, played more than 1,000 career NHL games and earned almost $70 million in the process.

Professionally, he has everything … except a Stanley Cup.

So it was in an empty dressing room at Madison Square Garden, almost an hour after the balloon of emotion had popped on this Montreal Canadiens season, that the wisened playoff warrior put everything in perspective. I asked him what he would give for the chance to play a Game 7 at the Bell Centre on Saturday night with a berth in the Stanley Cup final on the line.

“Pretty much anything.”

Briere didn’t blink. He only paused to collect his thoughts, then continued on.

“I think everybody understood on our side — Game 7, in our building, that was ours,” said Briere. “But (the Rangers) had to win this game. That’s where they showed up and they played an almost perfect game.”

Throughout this quaint Canadiens playoff run, it was Briere that provided a steadying hand. He saw limited shifts and played a role, but he was always there to remind everyone else in the dressing room just how special this was. Hidden behind a child-like complexion is the fact that Briere is now 36.

This may have been his last real chance.

The unspoken truth, not yet evident to his much younger teammates, is that it could just be the last chance for all of them. Who knows? Either way, this will soon be a game that they reflect on with great pain because there should be regrets about the 1-0 loss that vaulted the New York Rangers past them on Thursday night.

Max Pacioretty said that the Canadiens didn’t deliver their best effort in Game 6 and it was hard to argue with him after seeing the Rangers finish with a 48-28 advantage in shot attempts at even strength. Briere felt like the group was out of energy. By the count of the New York coaching staff, Montreal generated just five total scoring chances — making this one of the easiest shutouts in Henrik Lundqvist’s career.

“Shouldn’t have been a 1-0 game,” concluded Rangers coach Alain Vigneault.

This was an unusal Eastern Conference final that volleyed between high-scoring games and tight-checking nailbiters. There were key injuries and suspensions, but there was no sense that one team was clearly better than the other. At least not until it mattered most.

“We thought we lined up better against them than Boston and that’s what makes this all frustrating,” said Pacioretty. “We play our hearts out for two series and then have a little bit of a letdown in this series and then it’s too late.”

It was just as telling to compare the vast difference in the quality of the team’s breakouts on this night as their assessment of the game overall. Lundqvist had spoken earlier in the series about the empty feeling that accompanied the Rangers’ loss in the 2012 Eastern Conference final because there were lingering doubts about whether the team had truly given everything it had.

The stylish Swede also endured a tough couple days after getting pulled in a Game 5 loss, but found a way to approach Thursday night’s game with the proper mentality: “I don’t think I’ve been more determined to win a hockey game, you know?”

Did enough of the Montreal players feel the same way?

Once reality sets in, they should certainly be asking themselves that very question. This was a team that had already exceeded expectations, sure, but it should also have been one that could summon a little more desperation with such a tremendous opportunity within grasp.

Perhaps they were guilty of looking ahead to a Game 7 that would have bordered on a religious experience in la belle province. Perhaps they simply ran out of gas.

The difficult reality is that even an organization that features an Olympic champion goaltender (Carey Price) and an all-world talent on the blueline (P.K. Subban) and numerous enticing young players is not guaranteed to get this close again in the years ahead. General manager Marc Bergevin acknowledged as much just hours before this third-round series began.

“There are very good teams in the league,” he said that day. “Look at two years ago, the Devils were in the Stanley Cup final and they haven’t made the playoffs since. Are the Devils a good team? Yes.”

While it was understandable why Subban walked out of this building talking about the “bright future” ahead, it was just as important to listen to the disappointment in the voice of teammate Josh Gorges. He’s seen this before.

“Nine years in the league, 10 years in the league, whatever it’s been now, you get to the Eastern Conference finals twice,” said Gorges. “You’ve got to think that my career is more than half over and you still haven’t reached that next level. … I’m a little bit lost for words because I’m still trying to process this.

“I’m still stunned.”

And what about Dustin Tokarski, who was unexpectedly thrown into the middle of this series when Price went down with an injury and played his heart out? He was awesome on Thursday night and left wondering about what might have been on the only shot, from Dominic Moore, that snuck between his arm and his body.

Next season could start a long way from the bright lights of New York. He might even be back in the American Hockey League.

“Right now it’s tough,” said Tokarski. “You’re just thinking about what could have been. It was a fun series, it was great to be a part of, and hopefully I can get back here again one day.”

Then there was Briere, who reached the conference final for a fifth time but still finished another season with a feeling of remorse.

After a tough regular season, he was reborn this spring. Briere grew up as a diehard fan of the Canadiens and chose to walk from his downtown apartment to games at the Bell Centre so that he could soak up the atmosphere. The playoffs aren’t so much watched in Montreal as they are felt, and Briere’s heart soared right along with the local citizenry.

Had the Habs found a way to grind out a victory here, he could have experienced it one more time on Saturday night. The flags on firetrucks, the expectent energy, the sight of la Sainte-Flanelle — or “Holy Flannel,” as the team’s sweater is known in French — on men, women and children.

Absent a championship run, that is what Briere will remember most about the spring of 2014.

“Right now it’s tough to appreciate all of that,” he said. “It’s going to take a few days before I can start thinking about all of that. I mean it’s going to be positive; I know that.

“But right now it hurts too much.”

That’s what a missed opportunity feels like. It’s something he knows all too well.

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