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Hamrlik a key to Canadiens' success

by John McGourty

Canadiens' veteran defenseman Roman Hamrlik
is comfortable playing in Montreal's defensive system, and feels his overall play has improved.
Roman Hamrlik video highlights
There are a lot of reasons why the Montreal Canadiens were able to capture the top seed in the Eastern Conference for the Stanley Cup Playoffs.

You could point to Alex Kovalev's leadership and scoring or Tomas Plekanec's continued development or Mark Streit's production or the skill of the Kostitsyn brothers or the goaltending of Carey Price or Mike Komisarek's hard-hitting defense.

Those are all good reasons why the Canadiens have been such a sensation this season. Now, add solid, puck-moving defenseman Roman Hamrlik for chemistry, leadership and crisp outlet passes. After all, that's what Montreal GM Bob Gainey did last summer when he knew he was losing Sheldon Souray to free agency.

Hamrlik, one of seven Czechs who won the 1998 Olympic gold medal still playing in the NHL, was a free agent after playing two seasons with the Calgary Flames.

"I didn't hesitate when I got the offer. They expected me to play good defense and the offense would come along in its place," Hamrlik said.

Hamrlik has five goals and 21 assists in 77 regular-season games and was a plus-7.

Hamrlik, 33, has made an interesting and necessary transition. He was one of the NHL's best offensive defensemen in the early part of his 15-year NHL career and played in the 1996, 1999 and 2003 NHL All-Star Games. But he registered some astounding sub-zero plus-minus numbers in his early years with the Tampa Bay Lightning and got a reputation as a defensive liability.

Some of that criticism proved unwarranted. Hamrlik's offense was one of the few positives in the Lightning's early years. His successful gambles brought crowds to their feet while his failures got lost among the slew of other goals entering the Tampa Bay net.

If you can't sell the steak, sell the sizzle, and Hamrlik sizzled with seasons of 40 and 65 points. He was "The Show" and a big part of making that franchise exciting and ultimately successful.

He was traded to the Edmonton Oilers and put up three straight seasons of positive plus-minus numbers. After one aberrant down year with the New York Islanders in which he was minus-20, Hamrlik has registered six straight seasons of plus figures, including a plus-22 in 2006-07 with the Flames.

He has become part of the Big Three on the Montreal defense with Andre Markov and Mike Komisarek

"Roman has been an unbelievably good signing for us," said coach Guy Carbonneau. "When we lost Sheldon Souray to free agency last year, that was a big piece of the puzzle that needed to be replaced. Roman came into a situation with big shoes to fill. He doesn't have, maybe, the offensive output that Sheldon had,but he's really solid defensively. He's really calm on the ice, poised and gets his body in good position. He fits really well into our style.

"We have Andrei Markov, Mike Komisarek and Hamrlik that can play against anyone in the League. We try to use those guys in tough situations. The other three guys pick up the slack on the back end but we really rely on those three guys."

Shades of the 1970s Canadiens and the defense's Big Three of Larry Robinson, Serge Savard and Guy Lapointe.

"Andre Markov is one of the best players in the League and he's having a very good year, reading the play very well," Hamrlik said. "He has great hands that he can use on the power play. I've played a lot this season with Mike Komisarek and Patrice Brisebois. They're experienced players and they know what it takes to win hockey games."

Hamrlik is enjoying the responsibility and he likes the transformation the Canadiens made this season to become a better team defensively. There are numerous new faces in the lineup and scoring is spread more evenly among a bigger group of two-way players.

"Everyone is doing a good job and they play a style here that I can fit in," Hamrlik said. "Our forwards have lots of speed. When we play well, it's when we skate hard and use our speed. All six defensemen are versatile and can play the power play or the penalty kill."

Hamrlik focused more on defensive play in recent seasons and credited the coaching in Calgary with strengthening that aspect of his game.

"I think I have played better defensively in the past couple of years. It helped me in the past couple of years, when I played in Calgary," he said.

Hamrlik said the Canadiens benefit from Carbonneau's knowledge of the game and his intensity. He gets his message across, Hamrlik said.

"Coach Carbonneau played this game for a lot of years and he's been coaching for several years," Hamrlik said. "He knows how to prepare us and push us to win every game."

Komisarek, 26, continues to develop and says Hamrlik's willingness to share his wisdom has been as important as his on-ice play.

"'Hammer' has had a steady, calming effect on our whole defense," Komisarek said. "He's been the guy who has been reliable and consistent every night and tough to play against. He's great with the puck and great without the puck. He takes pride in his defense and can contribute offensively.
"Roman has been an unbelievably good signing for us." -- Montreal head coach Guy Carbonneau

"You can put him in any situation because he has such a well-rounded game. He was a great signing and has had a huge role in our success so far this year. He plays with a lot of confidence and poise. All the younger defenseman have learned from him and gained confidence."

Hamrlik played a lot of minutes during the regular season with rookie Ryan O'Byrne, a big kid who played three years at Cornell. O'Byrne still has some rough edges but he's playing well alongside Hamrlik.

"When I played with the Flames, I played with Dion Phaneuf when he was 19 years old," Hamrlik said. "Our chemistry worked very well. I don't have a problem playing with the young kids. O'Byrne has lots of speed and a really good shot. He was hurt for a while but we've been playing together since he came back and it's been working very well."

Right now, most things are working well for the Canadiens. Even Carbonneau said they are a little bit ahead of his expectations.

In the crucible that is the Stanley Cup Playoffs, teams that are learning to win are often exposed by teams that know how to win. The Canadiens went into the postseason as the East’s top seed and have fared well in the early going against the Boston Bruins.

Is this early success an example of learning or knowing how to win? That's the question the Canadiens' leadership is asking now, including Hamrlik.

"We have a good team but if we want to be the best team we have to build on this and keep winning," Hamrlik said. "Every team has gone through good stretches and bad stretches this year. Our team had it a little tough in the beginning of the season so it feels good to be on a roll."
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