Hello and Happy New Year and all that resolution jazz!! The new year has been ushered in with lots of celebratory gun fire here in Atlanta — one of our charming local customs — but the Atlanta Thrashers have been firing mostly blanks lately as they closed the book on the first half of their season by losing 5 of their last six games. I realize I’ve been shirking my blog-writing responsibilities of late and, while I do regret not writing more, I can honestly say that I’ve been busier at work over the last week than I can recall in recent memory and it has really worn me out. I had intended to take a few days off over the holidays before returning to the blog, but the final week of work was so crazy that I had no creative juice left for blogging in the days leading up to New Year’s Eve. In addition, this recent losing streak has really taken some wind out of my sails and I didn’t think you’d enjoy a profanity-laced tirade whereby I criticized everything from Craig Ramsay’s choice of tie down to Dustin Byfuglien‘s poor defensive play in the wake of the loss to the New Jersey Devils on NYE.
Indeed the Thrashers are a tired bunch as you can tell from their recent play as well as their slumping body language during most of the past six games. Since the 7 to 1 shellacking of the New Jersey Devils on December 18th, and a brief return visit to first place in the division, the energy level of this bunch has not been as high, nor as uniform across the board as it was in late November and early to mid-December. Looking at the schedule, the Thrashers are one of only two teams to have played half of their schedule before the end of the old year. And that team, Anaheim, is in the other conference. Only three other Eastern Conference teams have even played 40 games thus far and two of them just did so yesterday in some fancy, made-for-TV game under the lights at Heinz Field. Something called the Winter Classic, perhaps you’ve heard of or even seen it?? But all kidding aside, the Thrashers schedule has been more than a “brutally good time” in the past four weeks as they have played nearly a third of their games (13 of 41) in a grueling span of 21 days. And today’s match-up with Montreal marks their 14th game in 23 days.
But excuses will only get you called out in the Canadian press and excoriated on fan blogs like this one. At some point, you must figure out a way to adjust to your flagging energy levels and steal a few wins. Losing 5 of 6 and only procuring 3 points out of a possible 12 is not going to cut it when so many of the teams you’re competing with for a playoff spot have 2, 3 and even 5 games-in-hand on the schedule. Most notably, the Carolina Hurricanes, who are 7 – 3 over their last 10, have been playing very well of late and are only 6 points behind the Thrashers with 4 games still in hand. So while the Thrashers may very well be tired and banged up with nagging little injuries, they are not doing enough of the same things that got them into contention that enable you to pull out close games or secure overtime “loser” points against teams that are below or near them in the standings. However, I will say the travel schedule has been a bit unfair as many of the trips have been “one and done” either on the heels of a home game or right before a return to Philips to play a rested team like Boston or Tampa.
At any rate, the problems for the Thrashers go much deeper than just fatigue and a retarded schedule (thanks to the Atlanta dis-Spirit Group who caters more to the Hawks for a balanced schedule) as they have become as much stale and predictable as tired and slower. In retrospect, the ease with which the Thrashers scored early and often — 13 goals in basically 5 periods of action — against New Jersey and then Toronto may have been a bad thing for this group of overachievers. Not only did it put them right at the top of the standings in their division, but it may have created a false sense of “eliteness” in the dressing room. After the six-goal effort in the hockey mecca of Canada — and tons of praise from hockey media pundits everywhere — the Thrashers found themselves as the 2nd highest scoring team in the league averaging 3.3 goals per game while breathing the rarified air of a first place position in the division standings. The win in Toronto was the culmination of a stretch of hockey in which they won 12 of 16 games — 26 of 32 points even — and scored a whopping 57 goals to only 31 allowed. For one month, the Thrashers were looking like bonafide contenders for more than just an appearance in the playoffs.
Alas, that is the beauty of the marathon death-march known as the NHL regular season. 82 games is an eternity in terms of the wear and tear on a player’s body as well as the mental toll it takes on a player’s reaction time and ability to process information quickly. The Thrashers, despite the presence of veterans like Brent Sopel, Freddy Modin, Ron Hainsey and Nik Antropov, are still a very young and immature team. Take away those 4 players and the average age is probably somewhere in the range of 22-23. Try to recall how effective you were at anything at that age (especially if you liked to party in college!) and you soon realize this bunch is probably more mentally gassed than anything. For the Thrashers, this stretch has surely been a fortnight of fitful sleep, aching pains and mental tremors. They will try to regroup with a re-shuffled line-up when they take on the Montreal Canadiens in roughly 20 minutes from now. Perhaps the changes are about a game or two overdue, but Ramsay has had to subtract and add players like a Congressional Budget analyst adds and subtracts numbers during a lame duck session.
Perhaps the most troubling aspect of the recent struggles is the fact that too many of the Thrashers skill players have fallen prey to thinking they’re better than they really are. Or perhaps the fatigue from playing against top competition night in and night out has them looking for the spectacular play too often as puck possession has dwindled compared to what they were experiencing in late November and early December. All I know is that players such as Rich Peverley, Evander Kane, Alex Burmistrov and even Bryan Little at times, are over stick-handling and trying to do too much when the simple play is right there in front of them. Lately, turnovers have become more costly as the scoring has dried up like your hydration level on New Year’s Eve. The Thrashers have only managed 12 goals in their last 6 games and one of those was a Tim Stapleton shootout marker to secure the only double points nite in the last 12 days. The goaltending has still been good enough to steal a couple of games and play .500 hockey. However, the mental breakdowns have been exacerbated by the team’s lack of resolve in staying committed to an aggressive forechecking mentality.
Today, the Thrashers need to dig deep and reach into their intestinal reserves in order to turn things around and get two very valuable points in the standings against a team that is “beneath” them in the standings. Montreal is only 2 points back, but has two games left in hand. So this potential 4-point swing is huge for the Ice Birds. Montreal is very stingy when it comes to letting the other team score giving up only 92 goals in 39 games. In all likelihood today’s game will be a knock-down, drag-out wrestling match that is won in the trenches with hard work, low-risk plays and staunch defensive back-checking support. Hopefully, the changes to the line-up will cure what’s been ailing these weakened birds. Ladd is being reunited with Little and they are getting the “Big Nik-lipse” back to help them. Kane gets Burmy as his center and a hustling Chris Thorburn to aid him in the corners and along the boards. Peverley gets demoted to the “third” line where perhaps he can relocate his mis-placed scoring touch against weaker competition. He typically plays well against Montreal, but he will have to work extra hard at simplifying his game with Modin and Anthony Stewart as linemates.
Oh dear, it’s game time and I am still rambling!! On to the game!! Go Thrashers!!
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