Last time I posted a blog, I was exhorting my readers (and followers on twitter) to spread the word about the Thrashers‘ recent play as well as their bellwether prospects for a good season. Slowly but slowly (that’s not a typo!), the bandwagon is starting to gain some momentum. However, the Thrash-wagon did get bogged down trying to traverse a muddy street in downtown Thrasherville as recent as last Friday nite when the boys lost their most recent home game to the Colorado Avalanche 4 to 2. Hopefully, that relatively poor effort will not dampen the collective belief and spirit of those potential fans who are still lukewarm to the idea of casting aside their pessimism and joining the T-bird battalion of faithful fandom.
As the boys make their pre-game preparations for tonite’s huge divisional tilt with rival, and proverbial thorn in the side, Tampa Bay, I’ve been looking backwards to see if I can learn anything about the team that can explain why they don’t seem to be as sharp despite winning two straight road games. The one thing that sticks in my craw is a quote I gleaned from Coach Craig Ramsay’s presser after the loss to Colorado in which he concluded that they “didn’t stick to a good plan to get it (the puck) past them and make their D work…we backed up, we played on our heels; we have to be more aggressive.” Indeed he is right. The Thrashers allowed the Avalanche to dictate play and control the tempo on our ice despite an early 1 to 0 lead for the Thrashers. While the boys didn’t play poorly, Ramsay could not have been happy with the effort and the paltry 26 SOG for the game.
Apparently, the residue of the lackluster 1st period against Colorado — the Avs outshot the Thrashers 16 to 5 — has not been easy to remove as Ramsay seems to be searching for a spark with some recent changes to the line-up. Perhaps looking for a way to motivate his troops with a fresh message of “tough love”, he benched Niclas Bergfors, who scored the first goal against Colorado, and grinding winger Ben Eager, who hasn’t really stood out to me as playing poorly of late. Back into the line-up are veteran winger Freddy Modin, now completely healthy after a rib injury, and recently signed Tim Stapleton, whose diminutive frame belies his scrappy and aggressive demeanor. But neither was much of a factor in either of the two road wins in which the Thrashers shook off in-game doldrums to find a way to win.
In Long Island against the Islanders, the alarm went off nearly too late after a miserable 1st period led to a 2-nothing deficit, and in Ottawa, a mid-game lull set the tone for a late Senators comeback, which was auspiciously thwarted by former Ontario junior hockey stand-out, Bryan Little, who’s overtime heroics won the extra point in the standings. Either way, the Thrashers made things more difficult for themselves by failing to play hard for the full 60 minutes. For whatever reason, the Thrashers have not looked like the team that had been dominating games from start to finish during an impressive 6-game win streak. Other than the Boston game, in which the boys used a defensive shell to frustrate and befuddle the Bruins late onslaught of pressure, Atlanta seemed to be playing right in concert with every note on Coach Ramsay’s game-sheet music. In other words, they were earnestly applying the coach’s mantra of “safe is death“, sometimes even in scary-good fashion.
In the first 4 games of the win streak, the Thrashers averaged an astounding 39.0 shots on goal while only giving up 29.0 SOG against their own goalie. In addition, they outscored opponents by a whopping 19 to 3 margin. While that sort of run cannot be sustained for more than a couple of weeks, it seems as though the Thrashers have started to rest on their laurels just a bit. In doing so, they have had to dip into every gallon of confidence stored in their reserve tank to pull out wins in “thoracic“, heart-stopping fashion. With 3 overtime wins in their last 7 games, one must begin to wonder if he/she will need a bottle of rum or a dose of valium to watch games from this point forward. Surely this team doesn’t want to be known as the “Thoracic Thrashers” going forward, even if it is more fun to win games in overtime and mob the goal-scorer like you just won the Stanley Cup??
If they hope to continue their evolution towards becoming a dominant force to be reckoned with on a consistent basis, then it’s time for them to figure out a way to put a halt to the prolonged lulls that have plagued them a lot of the season, and especially of late. That’s not to say I’m ready to proclaim that the bottom is about to fall out on the Thrashers’ season. In fact, I’m buoyed by some convincing statistical evidence that shows a methodical, as well as dramatic improvement in how this team plays hockey. Not only are they still scoring goals at a consistent clip, but they are really starting to clamp down defensively, limiting shots and neutralizing scoring chances. Obviously the play of goalie Ondrej Pavelec has been sensational since mid-November, but the numbers show the Thrashers are improved in all facets.
Over their first 10 games, the only reason they were a shade over .500 was because of timely goal scoring (32 goals in all) since they were yielding way too many shots against. Making matters worse, they were only getting 28.1 shots to the net while their opponents were lighting them up for 35.5 per game! In the second set of 10 games, the shots-against average was exactly the same (spooky statistical anomaly), but the shots-for improved greatly by 3.80 shots per game to an average of 31.90. Unfortunately, this did not translate to much success — a losing record of 3 – 5 – 2 rather — as erratic goaltending, okay, bad goaltending, cost them dearly. In games 21 through 30 though, the team turned the corner. Over that stretch, in which they racked up 8 wins versus 2 losses, they averaged 33.0 SOG while only giving up 31.9 per game. On top of that, they were plus-15 at even strength, scoring 3.20 goals a game while only allowing a paltry 1.80 (can you say Pavelectric!?). Indeed the trend of improved play at both ends of the ice has been readily apparent with or without stats to back it up.
But I do have some concerns as the boys seem to be falling prey more frequently of late to the kinds of mistakes that cost them wins earier in the year. Two weeks ago, I penned these words to paper after their overtime win in Colorado: “While the Thrashers didn’t play their best hockey last nite, they did something even more impressive: win on the road against a very good team when the mountain seemed way too steep to climb. Such a win is just the kind of validation a fan and blogger like me was hoping for as I try to convince myself, and the reader, that the Thrashers are for real….keep in mind that stats only illustrate the underlying paradigm shift that has occurred in Atlanta. Now that it has started to take hold, the stats seem even more impressive than the actual turn-around that has occurred on the ice and in the players’ collective confidence.”
While I stand by my words that an overall paradigm shift in attitude and approach has occurred — breeding both a renewed esprit de corps and aura of confidence — in the locker-room and on the ice, I would hate to see all of the progress made squandered over the next 10 games. The condensed schedule in which Atlanta plays 13 times in 22 days presents the sternest, most grueling test yet for this young team. If they can get back to playing a game where they compete full bore for 60 minutes, while paying close attention to the finer points of the game to minimize mistakes, then this team should find itself firmly entrenched within a playoff spot in the standings by January 1st. From there, anything is possible. Then I will dare to dream, but for now, I will stick to my quiet, reserved sense of hope. Cold December was harshly unkind to this team last season. Until we survive this storm of games winning at least half of them, then I don’t plan on making any more pleas to rustle up fans for the bandwagon. I’ll let the team do it with their play on the ice.
About the Author: Accountant / Analyst who has a nagging writing addiction when it comes to hockey. I've been a hockey fan since I was a wee tyke and now my allegiance to the Atlanta Thrashers has me "mentally thrashed". My other long-time passion is the game of golf so I'm a glutton for punishment! As a mid to late 30-something, I'm blessed to have a girlfriend who aids and abets my hockey / blogging obsession. Hockey heroes include: Gilbert Perreault, Adam Oates (Go RPI!), Pat LaFontaine and Marty Reasoner. Follow me on the twitter machine @j_barty_party