MONTREAL – Roman Hamrlik isn't even sure about the role he played in allowing the Montreal Canadiens to avoid a franchise record none of his teammates wanted any part of.
But once he sees a replay, he'll know just how important his fifth goal of the season truly was.
Hamrlik's tap-in near the goal line prevented the Canadiens from being shutout in a franchise record fourth straight game and Mathieu Darche scored 11 seconds later in the first period of a 3-1 win Tuesday night against the Atlanta Thrashers.
The last time Montreal failed to score in four straight was back in February, 1928, but instead of matching an 83-year-old team record the Canadiens scored their two quickest goals of the season.
"I don't even know if I got it because there were so many guys in the front of the net," Hamrlik said, even though he clearly got his stick on a puck sitting behind Thrashers goalie Ondrej Pavelec after he wheeled around the net. "The most important thing is we got two points. As a team we worked much better than we did the last game and that's huge, to get some confidence to go on the road."
The weight of the streak was palpable among the sellout crowd of 21,273 at the Bell Centre, the nonstop subject of sports-talk radio and television panel discussions ever since the Canadiens' 2-0 loss to the Washington Capitals on Saturday where they managed a season-low 18 shots on goal.
Then, on the game's first shift, Canadiens goalie Carey Price made a brilliant save on Dustin Byfuglien on a backdoor play where a goal that quick likely would have turned the crowd against the home team.
"It's what he's done all year, giving us a chance to stay patient and stay with it," Habs captain Brian Gionta said. "It might have turned the tide if they score on that first shift."
Montreal recovered from that close call and began to play with a sense of urgency that was lacking before, and it paid off at the 12:56 mark when Hamrlik ended the suspense.
The Bell Centre erupted, far more so than it would under normal circumstances, and you could almost feel the tension as it seeped out of the building with the Canadiens celebrating their first goal in 199:01 of action dating back to the third period of an 8-1 win in Minnesota nine days earlier.
The Canadiens were so relieved, in fact, they wasted about as little time as possible in getting another one.
The puck went behind the Thrashers net off the ensuing faceoff and Pavelec gave it away to Scott Gomez, who immediately fed Darche in front for his 10th of the season at 13:07 before the goal that ended the streak could even be announced by PA announcer Michel Lacroix.
"When we scored our first two goals in the first period it helps a lot," Hamrlik said. "You play a lot more relaxed, especially at home in front of our fans. The last two (home) games we didn't play our best and we knew there would be lots of pressure, but I think everybody handled it pretty good tonight."
While the Canadiens snapped a streak, the Thrashers (32-32-12) kept one going as they have now alternated wins and losses in 10 straight games. Atlanta's playoff hopes, already on life support, are now all but squashed.
Even if the Thrashers were to win each of their final six games it would only get them to 88 points, just three more than the eighth-place Buffalo Sabres and one more than the seventh-place New York Rangers, who each have six games left to play.
"I think we lead the League in empty net goals against, which means we're in the game," Thrashers coach Craig Ramsay said after his team did indeed take over the NHL lead with its 14th empty-netter against when Andrei Kostitsyn sealed it with 1:20 to play. "But we need to be better."
The lack of a single goal from the Canadiens (41-29-7) over the past three games, meanwhile, was masking the fact that the team was also risking falling out of the Eastern Conference playoff picture themselves.
With ninth-place Carolina winning Tuesday night in a shootout in Washington, Montreal has a seven-point cushion leading into a showdown with the Hurricanes in Raleigh on Wednesday night.
"The two points are all that really matters at this point," Price said. "When you have teams creeping up behind you, just putting two points on the board is the biggest thing."
The game could have ended in serious controversy after Nik Antropov broke Price's shutout bid following a clear missed high-sticking call on Atlanta's Eric Boulton.
Boulton caught Canadiens defenseman Hal Gill near the eye with his stick, took the puck and set Antropov up in front for his 14th of the season at 8:35 of the third period. Gill, with blood trickling down his face, went to plead his case to referees Kyle Rehman and Bill McCreary, who huddled up with linemsen David Brisebois and Scott Cherrey before allowing the goal to stand.
"When you miss a call, you can't really go back on it," Price said. "It's just playing by the rules. We don't have any hard feelings over it now that we won. If we would have lost, it might have been different."
Price had to be sharp the rest of the way, finishing with 27 saves to make the incident moot – aside from the lost shutout. Price has allowed four goals in his last three Bell Centre starts, but this was his first win over that span.
Aside from an 11-second first period lapse, Pavelec was outstanding as well with 28 saves to give the Thrashers the opportunity to make it a one-goal game.
But in the end, a Canadiens team that was booed off their home ice one game earlier was given a rousing ovation by a relieved fan base.
And in spite of being lustily booed just minutes earlier, McCreary was given a heartfelt ovation as well when it was all over, just like the one he received prior to working the final game in Montreal of his legendary career.
Canadiens defenseman Paul Mara, who McCreary whistled for a slashing penalty at 12:01 of the third period of a 2-1 game, came over to give him the game puck.
"He's had an awesome career," Price said. "Even I got a puck signed from him because he was reffing games when I was just a kid watching games on CBC."