In praise of the Hamburglar

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The NHL’s best story of the last few weeks comes from a 27-year-old undrafted free agent out of Bowling Green, with a nickname derived from the thief of McDonaldland.

That, of course, is Ottawa goalie Andrew Hammond.

Hammond, the NHL’s reigning first star of the week, continued his run of improbability on Wednesday night by stopping 35 of 36 shots in a 3-1 win over Winnipeg. Since making his regular season debut on Feb. 16, the Hamburglar has gone 6-0-1 with a 1.35 GAA, .957 save percentage and two shutouts — lifting the Sens from nine points back of Boston for the east’s final wild card spot, to just four heading into tonight’s play.

“We can’t say enough good things about him,” Sens teammate Kyle Turris said following the Winnipeg win, per CBC. “We love him. He is playing great, and we’re just trying to rally for him.”

What makes Hammond’s story so compelling is where it came from: Out of nowhere. He was a good goalie on some bad Bowling Green teams during his college days and wasn’t a standout in the American League; after making a brief NHL debut last season — one 34-minute relief appearance — he seemed firmly entrenched as the Senators’ No. 3 netminder behind Craig Anderson and Robin Lehner, especially after both inked contract extensions last summer (they’re carrying a combined $5.3M cap hit this year.)

Then, injuries happened.

Anderson went down with a hand ailment and Lehner suffered a concussion, which thrust Hammond into a starting role. Despite this, the Sens didn’t seem to adapt any and still struggled with the same issues they had when Anderson and Lenher were in goal — sloppy defensive coverage, too many shots allowed.

But now they’ve got the Hamburglar bailing them out.

Ottawa still sits bottom-five in the NHL in shots allowed per game (32.5) and Hammond’s stats over the last seven games reflect that. He’s faced 33.5 per night, including a combined 74 in his last two outings — a 3-2 shootout loss to Minnesota and the aforementioned 3-1 win over Winnipeg.

Hammond admits he didn’t foresee this run of great play, but also said it’s not a surprise.

“It’s something that you don’t really envision starting this way, but when you put the work in you don’t feel like it’s unwarranted,” he explained, per NHL.com. “You definitely don’t envision it unfolding this way, but you do think you can be successful at this level.”

The big question now, of course, is what happens when Anderson and/or Lehner is ready to return. The former seems close and, given Ottawa has made contractual commitments to both guys, there could be the pressure to turn the net back over to Anderson as soon as he’s ready to go.

Heck, Anderson was slated to start last night’s game against the Jets before ruling himself out with some lingering discomfort in the hand. Head coach Dave Cameron acknowledged Anderson needs to get back in the net soon, but how will he justify not starting Hammond in light of the club’s reignited playoff chances?

To hear Sens players explain it, the roll Hammond’s on is something special — and maybe something you don’t want to mess with.

“Hammy’s standing on his head for us,” Turris said. “I can’t even explain how well he’s playing.

“It’s unbelievable.”