THE CANADIENS weren't supposed to be here, either.

That will bring little solace to mourners in Montreal, but it's true. It took their eighth seed to make this the lowest-caliber conference final in NHL history, now over after last night's 4-2 Flyers win.

The Habs' faithful, perhaps forever, and their players, at least for now, will recall only that they overcame a 3-1 series deficit to beat the top-seeded Capitals and Alex Ovechkin, then won two in a row to upset Sidney Crosby and the defending champion Penguins, both in seven games.

Getting shut out three times and dispatched in five against the seventh-seeded Flyers and . . . Mike Richards? Chris Pronger? Michael Leighton?

Hard to take.

"It's a tough feeling right now," said silenced sniper Michael Cammalleri. "You beat those two teams we had to beat - you start believing in something special. It's an empty feeling."

It will be no fuller when the worshipers grade this curve; when they rue one goal in 22 power-play chances; when they wonder at three shutout losses.

They might reflect that their general manager, Canadiens legend Bob Gainey, pre-emptively resigned in February. He remade the 2009 team that lost in the first round after advancing to the conference semis in 2008 - a remake that seemed flawed, at least, when Gainey faded into the background into an advisory role.

And as dicey as the Flyers' playoff slot seemed - winning in a shootout on the season's final day - the Canadiens played for a regulation tie in their finale to secure their spot.

Against the Flyers, without top defenseman Andrei Markov, they had little chance against a methodical Flyers attack. Markov blew out his knee in Game 1 against the Penguins.

"Andrei Markov was a big loss for us," said goalie Jaroslav Halak, upon whose pads the Canadiens rode to this point.

Markov probably doesn't mean a significant bump in scoring. The Habs - offensively challenged in the regular season and more opportunistic than overpowering in the postseason - scored just seven goals in five games.

"We didn't finish," said first-year coach Jacques Martin. "We had some opportunities, but we didn't finish."

Last night, they also missed penalty-killing center Tom Pyatt (upper-body injury), a hero of the 5-1 home win Thursday, but Pyatt wasn't going to make that much of a difference.

Against the Flyers, the Canadiens were not nearly the team that beat the powerhouses, especially with a man advantage. They were scoreless on six power plays last night.

Cammalleri, smallish but tough, never escaped the physical presence of Pronger. An electric piece of the makeover, Cammalleri entered the Flyers series with 12 playoff goals. He exited with 13.

"I thought they played a very disciplined style; disciplined in a lot of ways," Cammalleri said.

That discipline flummoxed a team with as much momentum as the Flyers.

Tomas Plekanec, Cammalleri's center, had four goals and seven assists in the first two rounds. He was without a point.

Defenseman Hal Gill, another offseason addition and the club's gigantic savior early in the postseason, was positively wooden-legged against the Flyers. He went from a plus-2 entering the series to a minus-3 after last night. Gill was considered the mentor for rookie P.K. Subban, the Canadiens' postseason bonus find, but Subban, predictably, was on the bad end of a slew of Flyers' scores and rushes. The pair was split up last night.

"It's a shame I couldn't help the team a little bit more," said Subban, a playoff call-up and top prospect who celebrated his 21st birthday this month after spending the season in the minors.

By the third period, Subban, after a few chippy moments against the Flyers, had replaced Halak as the Hab most hated at the Wachovia Center. The home crowd could not have been more delighted that Subban was on the ice, on his back, outfought by Mike Richards, when Jeff Carter potted the empty-net goal that iced the series.

"This sucks," said Subban, icing his fat upper lip, the evidence of Pronger's double-minor high-sticking penalty taken midway through the third, the Canadiens trailing by a goal.

Not only did the Canadiens not score on that advantage, Glen Metropolit's trip made it a four-on-four for the last 1:23 of it.

For all of the trouble in front of him, none of the Canadiens diminished more in the series than Halak. Pulled from Game 1, poor in Game 2, ordinary in Game 4, he never presented a real picture of the thrilling work he did against Washington and Pittsburgh.

Last night, with the Canadiens on a power play, Halak risked a poke-check charge against the onrushing Richards, who evaded both Halak and Roman Hamrlik. The puck trickled through them and Richards was left alone to even the score at 1.

Asked afterward to explain his strategy, Halak, usually absent for postgame interviews, snapped, "What do you want me to say? You saw it."

Halak had little chance on the next two Flyers goals, both of which came after turnovers.

After Andrei Kostitsyn coughed it up, Matt Carle delivered it to Arron Asham, left woefully alone on Halak's left. Asham waited, and waited, and finally poked it over Halak to make it 2-1 about 3 minutes into the second period. Less than 90 seconds later, the Habs surrendered possession again. Carter, unattended in front, received a pass from the boards and simply popped a puck over Halak after Gill went down and Jaroslav Spacek looked on.

There was a lot of that, all series.

Now the Canadiens and their fans can look on in comfort, and, pleasantly, look ahead.

"The organization took a big, huge step," said Scott Gomez, a two-time Cup winner with New Jersey and a major piece of the overhaul. "A lot of young guys learned what it takes to win in this game."

Maybe, one day, that will ease the pain.