Last season, Ottawa and Montreal were the seventh and eighth seeds in the Eastern Conference and ousted division winners Philadelphia and Boston in the first round of the playoffs.
This season has been a dramatically different story for both teams. Ottawa leads Detroit by three points in the race for the Presidents’ Trophy, while Montreal never was able to string together more than three consecutive wins.
The Senators’ low point was a 7-1 loss at Boston on November 9 that dropped them to 5-6-1. But they are 44-15-7-1 since and are on course to become the first Canadian team to win the Presidents’ Trophy since the 1988-89 Calgary Flames.
This loss knocked Montreal out of the postseason for the fourth time in five years and ensured a 10th straight season without a Stanley Cup.
“This is a great hockey city,” Ottawa captain Daniel Alfredsson said. “It’s too bad we had to eliminate the Canadiens from the playoffs, but we had to do what we did.”
“Our team tried to get ready for this game,” said Montreal goaltender Jose Theodore, whose seven-game winning streak last spring helped the Canadiens reach the playoffs. “It’s hard to accept that we have been eliminated. We have to look in the mirror. We had a feeling this night was coming. It’s no fun.”
Montreal broke on top in this one as captain Saku Koivu scored his 19th goal just 23 seconds into the second period.
But it was all Senators thereafter.
“Everyone in this room is unhappy,” Koivu said. “Ottawa is a great team. We have to prove to our fans and to the city of Montreal that we did the best we could, and we tried to do the best in this game.”
Ottawa answered nearly two minutes later as Bryan Smolinski scored his third goal in 10 games since being acquired from Los Angeles at the trade deadline. Pothier got his second of the season at 6:56.
Winless when trailing after two periods, Montreal kept it a one-goal game for most of the third, thanks to solid goaltending by Theodore. But a giveaway behind the net by Chad Kilger led to rookie Jason Spezza’s tally with 2:54 remaining that finished off the Canadiens.
With just one win in their previous eight home games, Montreal scored the first for the second straight contest as Koivu took defenseman Craig Rivet’s lead pass and lifted a wrist shot over Lalime’s right shoulder. It was his third goal in the last 21 games.
The lead proved short-lived. Marian Hossa breezed through the slot and dished to Peter Schaeffer. He left the puck for Smolinski, who scored from the doorstep.
Pothier netted just his fifth NHL goal when Kilger pushed Ottawa’s Chris Neil toward Theodore. Neil collided with the goalie and Pothier pushed wrist shot through a screen.
Theodore argued he had been interfered with, but the goal stood and Montreal generated little pressure the rest of the way.
With an estimated 5,000 fans cheering on the Senators, they sealed their team-record 49th victory when Jody Hull stole the puck from Kilger and found Spezza alone low in the slot.
“Sure, we talked about the record,” Lalime said. “We worked hard for this all season. I grew up in Quebec. It’s nice to see all those fans with Ottawa sweaters. I heard them cheering for us tonight.”