'The Hamburglar' steals first start in years, leads Canadiens to first win streak

Rem Pitlick scored the shootout-winner and Andrew Hammond turned aside 32 of 34 shots to win his first start since 2018 as the Montreal Canadiens defeated the New York Islanders 3-2.

Here’s a sentence that, before this season started, I’d have never bet on writing: It took the Montreal Canadiens 50 games to string together wins.

Here’s another: The Canadiens achieved their first two consecutive wins of the 2021-22 season with Martin St. Louis as head coach and due to excellent goaltending performances from Samuel Montembeault and Andrew Hammond.

If I could’ve looked into the future back in September, seeing those three names associated with the Canadiens would’ve completely shocked me, but also would’ve done much to explain how the team went deep into February without piecing together wins.

But I digress…

The Canadiens beat the St. Louis Blues in overtime on Thursday with a great team game, and with Montembeault coming up clutch when he had to. And on Sunday, they played very well to beat the New York Islanders 3-2 in a shootout in their first-ever game at UBS Arena.

Hammond made 31 saves through overtime and then stopped Mat Barzal and Brock Nelson in the skills contest, silencing a boisterous crowd in attendance.

Had his win taken place at the Bell Centre, there’d have been only 500 people in attendance due to COVID-19 restrictions that will only be lifted to allow 50 per cent capacity come Monday. But surely, at least one of those 500 savvy Canadiens fans would’ve seen Hammond was starting and bought a hamburger to throw on the ice in case he won.

It’s been seven years since the world’s most popular sandwiches littered the ice in Ottawa, when Hammond debuted with the Senators and authored one of the most miraculous and memorable runs in NHL history. Boy, did he ever put all the fixings on ‘em—stealing 20 of 23 starts to carry his team to an improbable Stanley Cup playoff berth and earning himself the nickname, ‘the Hamburglar,’ after the cartoonish McDonald’s mascot.

Hammond made 24 appearances with the Senators the following season, chasing his previous greatness and never catching up to it, and…well…people stopped throwing burgers on the ice by the time he was relegated to the AHL soon after.

Down to Binghamton, then Belleville. Off to Colorado for one game with the Avalanche in March of 2018, but that was it. The journey took him through San Antonio, Iowa, Rochester, and through purgatory as a taxi squad member of the 2020-21 Minnesota Wild before he was lowered back down to Iowa this season.

A week ago, Hammond finally landed in Montreal in a trade that sent Brandon Baddock to the cornfields.

And then, on Saturday, he was told he’d be making his first NHL start in 1425 days come Sunday.

“Last season was difficult at times, but it allowed me to prepare for this moment,” Hammond said before the Canadiens departed for New York. “I know I’ll be ready when I go in the net. With everything that was going on last year, with the pandemic and everything, you never knew when you’d be called up to the regular roster. I learned a lot last year about always being ready to play and taking advantage of the opportunities that are given to you.”

He applied the lesson when the puck dropped Sunday.

With pads kicking and arms flailing, Hammond turned aside the first 10 shots he faced. He was beat once on 12 shots in the second period, and once more on nine shots in the third. He stopped the only shot he faced in overtime and then got beat by Anthony Beauvilier’s breathtaking move to start the shootout.

But there was Hammond with his hands in the air at game’s end, celebrating as a key cog in Montreal’s first winning streak of the season.

The Canadiens did their part, too. Jeff Petry opened the scoring and played another strong game after what had to be considered his best one of the season against St. Louis Thursday. Josh Anderson scored his 10th goal of the campaign from a sharp angle and put the Canadiens in pole position before Brock Nelson tied things up with just under three minutes remaining in the third.

And, after an electric overtime the Canadiens mostly dominated, Cole Caufield and Rem Pitlick scored highlight-reel goals on Ilya Sorokin in the shootout.

Ben Chiarot was asked after the game about the Canadiens finding comfort in tight games like the last two they played and ironically responded, “the 5-1 games, the 4-0 games, those are rare…”

They sure haven’t been for the Canadiens this season, especially coming off wins. In four of eight previous attempts to pile one victory on top of another, this team lost by at least three goals.

The 5-1, the 4-0 games are what this historically pitiful Montreal season’s been made of.

But the team has looked different under St. Louis, and perhaps we’ll see them less frequently from here to the end.

“He’s got everyone motivated and excited to play,” said Chiarot, who played his first game in a week since being placed on injured reserve with a lower-body injury. “He’s got his direction out there that he wants, and guys are doing it and guys are seeing success, getting more touches, more offensive success and less breakdowns. He’s got us playing good hockey.”

St. Louis didn’t have much of a choice to play Hammond on Sunday, with the Toronto Maple Leafs visiting the Bell Centre Monday.

But the coach felt good about giving his goaltender the opportunity he’s been waiting for.

“A player like him, who hasn’t played in the NHL for three or four years, continues to work on his game with the right attitude,” St. Louis said on Saturday. “He seems like he likes hockey, and it’s fun to give chances to people who think that way.”

Montembeault’s gotten a bunch of them since getting claimed off waivers from the Florida Panthers. He’d have not made it to Montreal had Carey Price been healthy at the start of the season, and he wouldn’t have appeared in a career-high 23 games had Jake Allen remained healthy since.

And the Canadiens wouldn’t be depending on Montembeault again on Monday if they were a team that didn’t need 50 games to win consecutively.

The team definitely wouldn’t have needed Hammond.

But he couldn’t care less about any of that. The 34-year-old is just thrilled to be back in the league where miraculous things have happened for him.

Hammond never gave up hope this day would come.

“If I wouldn’t have been preparing for this moment over the last four years, I’d be living with a lot of regret,” he said. “So, that’s the only way I know how to approach it. And if it never happened, it would be what it is. But I’m very happy it did.”

In this unpredictable season, it could happen at the Bell Centre soon.

Buy yourself a hamburger at concessions if you’re going.

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