Montreal Canadiens\' Mathieu Darche, left, celebrates his goal against the Atlanta Thrashers with teammate Brent Sopel during first period NHL hockey action Tuesday, March 29, 2011 in Montreal. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Paul Chiasson
MONTREAL - It wasn't the prettiest goal of the season, but it looked delightful to the Montreal Canadiens.
Defenceman Roman Hamrlik broke the team's longest goalless drought in 61 years when he banged home a loose puck off a wild scramble around the Atlanta net Tuesday in Montreal's 3-1 victory over the Thrashers.
"It was a big monkey off everybody's back when we popped that first one," said Habs goaltender Carey Price, who witnessed it from the far end of the rink. "It seemed that even to the bitter end it didn't want to go in.
"It took us about 10 whacks to get in there, but we finally broke the eggshell."
Mathieu Darche scored another only 11 seconds later for Montreal (41-29-7), whose 89 points is one more than they had all of last season when they finished eighth in the Eastern Conference. Andrei Kostitsyn added an empty-net goal, his 20th of the season, with 1:20 left in the third.
The Bell Centre crowd of 21,273 leapt from their seats when Hamrlik shot from the right side, knocked the loose rebound into the crease, went around the other side and poked it in as a crowd of players jostled around the blue paint.
"I got a nice pass and I should have scored on the shot, but the rebound was there," said Hamrlik after his fifth of the season. "I don't score a lot of goals, so it was nice."
Some were still cheering when Darche was left alone at the doorstep to bang a Scott Gomez feed past Ondrej Pavelec.
But the big sigh of relief was the first one.
Since winning 8-1 in Minnesota, the Canadiens had lost 2-0 to Buffalo, 7-0 to Boston and 2-0 to Washington—the first time they had been shut out in three straight since 1949.
Hamrlik's goal ended a 199-minute one-second drought since Tom Pyatt's goal at 13:55 of the third period in Minnesota.
"We all had a smile, even the coaches had a little smirk," said Darche. "And the fans were great.
"People were talking about the fans booing us but that's what's special about playing in this city. They may be hard on guys when you struggle, but the first goal, it was like a Stanley Cup-winning goal in any other building."
The Canadiens, with only their fourth win in 10 games, moved alone into sixth place ahead of the idle New York Rangers, who have a game in hand.
Montreal plays Wednesday night at ninth-place Carolina, who stayed close in the playoff race with a victory over Washington.
Montreal outshot the Thrashers 31-28.
Nik Antropov scored a disputed goal in the third period for the 11th-place Thrashers (32-32-12), who saw their slim playoff hopes fade further with only six games to play. They opened a five-game road trip.
The game may have been vastly different had Price not stopped Dustin Byfuglien in alone in the opening seconds of the game. He made an even better save on Eric Boulton five minutes later.
The crowd booed Antropov's goal at 8:35 of the third. Boulton clipped defenceman Hal Gill near the eye, opening a gash, but no penalty was called as he collected the puck on the other side and fed Antropov going to the net.
Price wasn't complaining.
"After three shutouts in a row, I'll take the win," he said. "At the end of the day, it didn't cost us anything."
Added Montreal defenceman Brent Sopel: "They didn't see it, but mistakes happen. I think it was good for us. We found a way to handle it and push back."
The win had much to do with the Canadiens playing with far greater intensity than they've shown of late and they managed to stay out of the penalty box early, which had been a drain on their energy during their drought.
Gomez, the target of recent booing, had a strong game.
The Canadiens play four of their final five regular season games on the road, with their last home game next Tuesday night against Chicago.
Notes: Veteran referee Bill McCreary got a big ovation when it was announced before the opening faceoff it would be his last regular season game in Montreal before his retirement. McCreary doffed his helmet ... Jeff Halpern picked up his 200th career assist on Hamrlik's goal. ... Alex Picard, Yannick Weber and Pyatt did not dress for the Canadiens. ... Thrashers forward Radek Dvorak left after the first period with an injury. ... Atlanta forward Anthony Stewart reportedly didn't make the trip because of a visa problem.