BROSSARD, Que. – Sitting on the bench was no fun for veteran Roman Hamrlik.
The 35-year-old defenceman spent all but two shifts of the third period as a spectator in Game 5 of the Montreal Canadiens’ NHL playoff series against the Capitals in Washington, watching as his teammates staved off elimination with a gritty 2-1 victory.
He hopes to be more involved when the Canadiens, trailing 3-2 in the best-of-seven series, try to stay alive again with a victory in Game 6 on Monday night at the Bell Centre (TSN, 7 p.m. ET).
“I’ve been here long enough and I’ve played so many games in the league, I should know better,” Hamrlik said Sunday. “I just have to compete and be ready every shift.
“Last game, I didn’t play much. We got a big win and I support the guys, but it’s frustrating to watch the game from the bench, absolutely.”
Marc-Andre Bergeron, his defence partner of late, played only one shift in the third as the Canadiens protected a lead against the Capitals’ high-powered attack, knowing that with two full days off to rest between games they could ride their best performers hard.
Hamrlik has not been among their best of late, although it hasn’t helped that defence partner Jaroslav Spacek has missed the last two games – and likely will be absent again on Monday night – with a suspected respiratory problem due to a virus.
The first overall draft pick of the 1992 draft can barely remember the last time he was benched in a playoff game. It was early in his career with the Tampa Bay Lightning. But he said he is not injured, takes full responsibility for his play and vows to do better.
He was called out before Game 5 by coach Jacques Martin, who said the Habs “need more” from Hamrlik.
In five games, he has three assists but is a minus-5, tied for second worst on the club behind Bergeron’s nasty minus-8.
“For sure I can play better and I have to bring more, keep my feet moving and be physical – that’s my game,” he said. “I’m sure the coaches will give me my chance.”
It may be that Hamrlik is simply running low on fuel after a tough season. When top rearguard Andrei Markov severed a tendon in a foot in the first game of the regular season and missed 35 games, Hamrlik stepped up as Montreal’s best defenceman, regularly leading the team in ice time.
“He’s a veteran player, so you look for him for some leadership and assertiveness in his play,” said Martin. “He’s been there before.
“When you look at how key a player he was in the first half of the season in the absence of Markov, he played against the best and did a good job. In the playoffs, it’s about elevating your game.”
Based on Sunday’s practice at their suburban training centre, it appears the Canadiens will make no lineup changes for Game 6. Spacek skated a little after practice, but does not appear ready to return.
The Canadiens will be looking for their first win of the series on home ice, although that seems to be a trend in this year’s playoffs. In Pittsburgh’s series win over Ottawa, five of the six games were won by the visiting team. Home and away teams split the first 40 playoff games around the league evenly.
In the Montreal-Washington series, visitors have won four of five, with the only exception the Capitals’ 6-5 overtime victory in Game 2 in which they had to erase a 4-1 deficit.
It doesn’t surprise Martin.
“Before, home ice was more of a factor,” he said. “You think of Chicago Stadium, Boston Garden, or Buffalo – those rinks were different dimensions, small ice surfaces, fans on top of you.
“It was really an intimidating factor to play in those places. Now all the buildings are the same dimensions. It’s not as much of an intimidating factor now.”
But he’s glad for home ice just the same.
“The fact that you’ve got your fans behind you, that we’re faced with adversity once more and we have to respond,” he said.
One area in which the Canadiens have excelled is penalty killing, where they’ve held the Capitals to one Alex Ovechkin goal in 24 chances, for a 95.8 per cent kill rate. Only Boston and Chicago, both a perfect 100 per cent, have done better, but Montreal has done it against what was the NHL’s top power play with a 25.2 per cent success rate in the regular season.
“We’re definitely playing desperately on the PK,” said forward Brian Gionta. “We know how explosive they can be and we’re doing a good job of limiting the chances they get.
“If Jaro (goaltender Halak) can see the puck, if it can stay on one side of the ice, we have a good chance of him stopping it.”
It helps Montreal that some of Washington’s snipers are struggling. Alexander Semin, a 40-goal scorer in the regular season, has been held to one assist, as have Tomas Fleischmann and Brendan Morrison.
That may be why coach Bruce Boudreau hinted at lineup changes for Game 6, perhaps bringing in gritty forward Scott Walker and David Steckel, who scored the overtime winner in Game 6 of a second-round series last spring in Pittsburgh.