Greetings from “Snowlanta“, Georgia, THE southern capital of ill-preparedness when it comes to battling the elements of snow and ice. For several days I have been trapped in my apartment due to an unusual phenomenon in which a rare snow event is complicated by the subsequent injection of freezing precipitation into the mix to form a layer of stubborn ice across every inch of road in the city. As a result, a city lacking the necessary plowing and salting equipment has lost safe access to just about every primary and secondary road in the metro Atlanta area for the better part of three days. And for every 5 mile stretch of interstate that is clear and safe, there are 2 miles of stalled traffic sitting helplessly behind yet another jack-knifed tractor trailer whose driver didn’t realize how bad the roads would be in a city that owns roughly 1/10th the number of snow plows and salt trucks most major cities of the “Noreaster” corridor might possess. During this now three-day long winter crisis, my mind has essentially turned to mush from watching TV and my body is not far behind. If it were not for a two-hour ice-chopping endeavor in which I employed my boot-clad toe as an ice pick and shovel, my amount of physical exertion would be hovering just above that of a single-celled amoeba.
Interestingly, my level of exertion hasn’t been much surpassed by that of the members of the Atlanta Thrashers hockey club. Since Sunday afternoon’s contest with the Carolina Hurricanes (isn’t it fitting that their last game would come against the NHL’s most feared weather event?), the Thrashers have been “trapped under ice” as a result of this unique weather episode. “Snowmageddon 2011” began Sunday nite, not long after the Thrashers arrived home from their disappointing 4 to 3 overtime loss to the Canes. While the effort they gave was worthy of earning a point in the standings, the way in which they squandered away the 2nd point during overtime — as a result of a careless defensive play deep in their own zone — could not have left a very satisfying taste in their mouths. And to make matters worse psychologically, the Ice Birds were then “put on ice” for a period of two whole days, unable to practice due to the treacherous road conditions near their rehearsal rink in Duluth. Luckily, the team was able to break free from their idle physical state and take to the ice for the purpose of skating rather than having to chisel ice from the exteriors of their sports cars and Escalades. However, from the standpoint of resting and repairing damaged and weary muscles, the Thrashers could not have been more pleased to receive such a wicked weather greeting upon returning to Atlanta on Sunday. For a team that has struggled to garner points in the standings since reaching their high-water mark of 19 – 11 – 5 on December 20th, 2010, the 4-day respite between games this week has probably been a much welcomed one.
In the game Sunday versus the Canes, the Thrashers were forced to employ a hodge-podge mix of a line-up that included one player, Spencer Machacek, who has only played 2 NHL games in his young career, prior to playing alongside rookies Patrice Cormier and Alex Burmistrov, who collectively only have roughly 50 games of pro experience themselves. The Thrashers have been forced to rely more heavily than they would have preferred on green, inexperienced players due to a recent rash of niggling little injuries that have sidelined the likes of Jimmy Slater, Freddy Modin and Evander Kane, who is third on the team in goal-scoring with 13 tallies. In addition, the wear and tear of playing 17 games in 31 days has certainly taken a significant mental toll on the fragile minds of their young roster, which features 10 players at or under 26 years of age. But youth and inexperience aside, the Thrashers have slipped into a mid-season funk that is not uncommon for even the best teams in the National Hockey League.
Every team experiences an extended slump or malaise during the long, 82-game grind of a season. What separates good teams from mediocre and bad ones is their ability to bounce back from a period of anguish and difficulty with a period of success as well as sustained consistency. Since earning their 43rd point on 12/20/10, the Thrashers have managed only 8 points in their last 10 games going 3 – 5 – 2 during that span. More troubling is the fact that the Thrashers have not been able to put together the sort of 60-minute effort that made you think they’re close to regaining the form they exhibited during 15 games directly preceding this rough patch. But is it more than just a rough patch? Are the Thrashers a jack-knifed truck on the path to eventual success or are they slipping closer and closer to dropping into a ditch of unfulfilled potential? Have the Thrashers been exposed after half a season, or have the injuries and difficult schedule been simply too much for a young team to overcome recently? More importantly, can the current direction of the team be reversed?
History would tell you that the answer to this question is a resounding “hell no!” But careful and astute observation would tell you otherwise. Yes, the Thrashers have struggled mightily of late and statistically, they have regressed not only towards an inevitable statistical mean, but towards a trend they have not seen since the first 20 games of the season. Prior to games #36 thru #45, the Thrashers were playing their best hockey and probably the best hockey seen in Atlanta since early 2006. The truest indicator of their recent struggles is the fact that, over the last 10 games, the team has allowed an average of nearly 36 shots on goal while only mustering an average of 32 of their own, a figure that is inflated by the 44 SOG they fired at Toronto netminder, Justin Reimer, well after the outcome was determined. Even though the Thrashers have only enjoyed one 15-game stretch of hockey in which they were consistently outshooting and out-chancing their opponents, they weren’t struggling to score as much as they have over the last 10. They have only potted 28 goals — but 13 in the last four — over their last 10 compared to a season long average near 3.2 GF per game. What’s worse is the fact they have given up a gaudy total of 40 goals in those 10 games. Moreover, they have been allowing their opponents to dictate play and keep the puck in the Thrashers’ zone far too much. As a result, the Thrashers are a minus-41 in even strength shot differential during this period compared to a season-long disparity of 110 shots over a half a season. From the 3rd period of game 19 (a 2 to 1 loss to the Florida Panthers) to the end of game 41 in New Jersey (also a loss), the overall shot differential was plus-4. But since then, the fatigued and road-weary Thrashers have yielded a whopping 153 SOG in four games!! Remarkably, they managed to “steal” 5 of 8 possible points during that stretch thanks to the stellar goaltending of Ondrej Pavelec and timely scoring.
But the recent trends are more than just unsettling for a franchise whose relationship with its fans has been, to quote my friend Carl Danbury of the Southeast Sports Report, “tempestuous” at best over the last four years. Fans who want to believe in the team are finding it hard to keep the faith when they have witnessed one too many mid-season swoons that spelled disaster for their lofty playoff hopes. Even the most tempered souls are probably grinding their teeth at nite as thoughts of a mid-season collapse slip in and out of their consciousness. However, I am not ready to concede that the most recent stretch of hockey was the beginning of the end for this collection of talented, young players. Yes, it will be a challenge for a team as green at key positions as the Thrashers are, but I am of the opinion that they possess the requisite talent, leadership and coaching to regroup and regain their form before its too late. While the slump has been maddening, they have not fallen out of the current playoff picture just yet. In fact, they are still within striking distance of even the division lead should they cobble together a few wins when they resume play on the 14th against Philadelphia, who will come to Atlanta as the leading point-getter in the Eastern Conference. Even if the Flyers lose on Thursday nite to Boston, their 59 points will still lead the conference on Friday. With 51 points, the Thrashers still have a chance to catch the Flyers if they can muster a winning effort to propel them into a stretch of winning hockey. Of course, that isn’t the most realistic goal for a young team that will likely contend for a bottom four playoff seed. Divisional foes Washington and Tampa have not managed to separate themselves from the pack and anything can happen within the division. But the Thrashers must start winning with more regularity — at least earning 9 of the next 14 points — if they want to keep pace in the race for divisional supremacy.
To do so, however, the Thrashers must get healthy and fast. Evander Kane returned to practice today and the extended rest should really benefit Nik Antropov, who has struggled with a surgically repaired hip the entire season. Where Antropov is most valuable is on the man-advantage and the coaches must look to him for leadership and production on a unit that has been plagued by inconsistency. The power play has become too dependent on the talents and booming shot of Norris Trophy candidate, Dustin Byfuglien, and it’s crucial that the Thrashers figure out a way to establish consistency through a more balanced attack, which allows some of their skill players to create chances below the tops of the circles. Byfuglien’s slapper is a great weapon to have, but that weapon is diminished when the other team keys on it so aggressively. But that is just one adjustment that Coach Craig Ramsay must make if the Thrashers are to contend for more than just the 8 seed in the playoff race. If Jim Slater’s concussion symptoms linger longer than expected, they must figure out a way to shore up a penalty kill unit that has given up 9 PP goals in the last 4 games. Without the luxury of Slater’s face-off winning proficiency, the unit will need to work harder to disrupt the other team from setting up and getting quality chances that lead to juicy rebound opportunities. Hopefully a rested and healed defense will help them clear the crease and limit second-chance shots with more frequency. Moreover, we can only hope the rest and practice will enable them to play as a more cohesive unit that does not succumb to fatigue as easily and take bad, untimely penalties at crucial junctures of the game.
Obviously the coaches have their work cut out for them, but I full expect GM Rick Dudley to figure out a way to bring in some veteran help in the form of a dependable two-way forward — one who hasn’t lost a step like Freddy Modin — that can help out on the PK as well as some insurance along the blueline in the form of a savvy vet, who can provide a bit of a wake-up call for a guy like Zach Bogosian, who doesn’t seem to totally comfortable in Ramsay’s system. If nothing else, I think we can expect a shuffling of the pairings and a demotion for Bogosian to either the 3rd pairing or even the pressbox while Freddy Meyer gets a chance to establish himself as a more consistent contributor. Regardless, the Thrashers are truly a work in process with much potential for success. My belief is that they are too young and too cocky to let the pressure of the playoff push overwhelm them completely. And if the pressure gets to them at all, they have the likes of Byfuglien, Andrew Ladd and Brent Sopel, all of whom have proven their playoff mettle, to keep them focused and on track for reaching their goal of a playoff berth. All is not lost if they continue to struggle for regulation wins in January as the schedule is much more favorable after the All-Star Break. As long as they can avoid another 3 or 4-game losing streak, look for the Thrashers to remain in the thick of the race. In fact, look for a rested and re-invigorated Thrashers team to come out of their temporary winter hibernation with lots of vim, vigor and something to prove.
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