Friday, April 11, 2008

Hammer time

Ah...what a win! The Habs were in control throughout the whole of their first playoff game of 2007-08; speed demons for sixty fun-filled, hard hitting minutes. The forwards were like fighter jets, buzzing the target and generally harrying the ponderous Bruins defence all game long. Tim Thomas did his best, but there was little he could do to keep the dogfighters at bay indefinitely.

But if the forwards were the fighters, the defence was their base. And (pushing it, I know, but trying not to completely beat a metaphor to death), Roman Hamrlik was their control tower. When the Bruins recovered from the Habs' initial two-goal attack and tried to find some momentum, Hammer was back there, game cranked up to another level, collecting pucks in the corner and distributing them to the forwards without hesitation. This is a guy who knows what it takes to win in the playoffs. Even when some of the other defencemen muffed clearing passes and when the Bruins threatened to sustain pressure in the Habs' zone, Hamrlik never lost his cool or his smarts. More often than not, when a potential Bruins threat was diffused, Hamrlik was the one responsible.

His physical game too, often used sparingly during the regular season, reached another level in his first playoff tilt as a Hab. All week, Bruins fans have been talking about how tough-as-nails rookie Milan Lucic would make the Habs pay. As it turned out, Lucic was the one finding himself out of pocket when he wound up on the receiving end of two massive Hamrlik checks on the same shift. Like all savvy veterans (Smolinski, anyone?), it turns out the Hammer has kept some reserve jet fuel in the tank for the post-season.

Remember back in July, when the Cirque de Souray was at its height? Habs fans were torn: convinced the powerplay would suffer without him, but loathe to pay what it would take to keep him, with his defensive liabilities and fragile physique. The pendulum of public opinion swayed back and forth on an almost hourly basis: "Keep him, no matter won't find a better replacement!" "Let him go...the team can't afford the contract he wants!" But no matter what opinion most fans held about the cost of retaining Souray, almost everyone agreed the team would be poorer for his loss. In the end, of course, Souray walked and Gainey went into replacement mode. When he announced Hamrlik's signing, again fan reaction was almost universal: "He's been solid in his career, but Gainey overpaid in his desperation to fill the hole left by Souray."

I think it's safe to say no one believes that now. In the relative world of fantastic salaries paid to hockey players, Roman Hamrlik has been worth every single copper of the 5.5 million dollars Bob Gainey decided to give him. In six months, he's become a rock for the Habs defence, and showed us what "hard to replace" really means. In the five games he missed with a viral ailment earlier this season, the team lost three in a row...matching their longest losing streak of the season.

If one of the sticks by which we measure the value of a hockey player is how well he improves the play of those around him, Hamrlik passes muster there too. This season, he's shown young Ryan O'Byrne how to be responsible in his own zone and how to hit without taking himself out of the play. He's covered up for Brisebois, who sometimes doesn't make the wisest of decisions with the puck. And he's freed up Mark Streit and allowed him to go on the rush rather than struggle on the boards in his own zone. The forwards, too, benefit from having Hamrlik find them with quick break-out passes that speed up the transition game to levels we've not seen from the Habs since Cournoyer's back was healthy.

I was thrilled to see Hamrlik named a star of the game last night. In a match in which team speed, hitting and pure offensive dominance were on display, it was nice to see the guy whose steady, unspectacular game made the rest possible get a little credit.

Bob Gainey may or may not be a card-carrying member of Mensa, but he sure looks like he belongs in that club today for his signing of Roman Hamrlik. If the big guy can keep his game up to this level for the rest of the playoffs, it could be a long spring.

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