Monday nite in Sonrise, FL, nestled between the Everglades and Sawgrass Mills Parkway, the Bank Atlantic Center’s modest crowd of 11,500 watched in shocked horror as their Panthers fell prey to a quick-striking Thrashers team that leapt from the depths of their own darkening swamp to chomp down on a share of the regulation lead with little more than a Miami minute remaining in the game. The stunned crowd would depart for home shaking their heads after the Atlanta Thrashers conjured up a shocking come-from-behind, shootout win the likes of which no one could have envisioned after watching the previous 18 minutes of third period action unfold before them. In what amounted to just 44 seconds of elapsed time at the end of the third period, the Thrashers completed a miraculous comeback when Bryan Little‘s deft wrister from just inside the blueline found its way from Evander Kane‘s hip to Chris Thorburn‘s stick-blade and through the wickets of dumbfounded goaltender, Scott Clemmensen, who watched helplessly from his butterfly position as the puck trickled slowly over the goal line.
The tip-in goal tied the game at two with only 1:14 remaining in regulation and came just a mere 44 seconds after the first goal was tucked home at the left post by a well-positioned Bryan Little following a mad scramble in front of the Panthers’ net in which the Thrashers had three successive whacks at the bouncing puck. Luckily, the third whack was the charm and the struggling Thrashers suddenly found themselves on the right side of a huge momentum shift for a refreshing change. The T-birds would still have to survive a wild and woolly 5-minute overtime, and net-minder Ondrej Pavelec would be called upon to make another series of stupendous, game-saving stops, before the coveted 2nd point could be secured during the compulsory shootout skills competition. But by punctuating the comeback in such a fashion, the victory may now serve as an even bigger shift in the inertia of their season. After escaping the harrowing swamp with two precious points, the Thrashers hope this win will propel them into a successful second-half run that can preserve their tenuous grasp on the 8th and final playoff slot in the Eastern Conference.
For the Thrashers, it was only their 4th win in 13 tries. However, despite struggling mightily of late in just about every phase of the game, the boys from Blueland have somehow managed to eek out just enough points (7) recently to stay in a position to make a total 180 and put some pep back in their collective step before the 5-day All-Star Game respite, which begins on January 27th. Currently, the Thrashers cling to the 8th spot with a record of 23 – 18 – 7 for 53 points despite their previous month-long doldrums. Recently, the struggles have been more pronounced as the Thrashers have been outscored by a margin of 31 – 19 by their opponents in the month of January. Perhaps more disturbing is the number of shots they have given up during this 7-game stretch as the Thrashers have yielded an average of roughly 36.5 SOG while only putting an average of 31.4 shots on net themselves. But despite these negative trends the Thrashers have surprisingly come away with 3 wins and an overtime loss point in their seven January contests to date. And now with 3 of the next 4 games at home — all against divisional foes — the Ice Birds have a remarkable opportunity to not only reverse their recent post-holiday tailspin, but also gain some serious ground on rivals Washington and Tampa Bay, who sit just 5 and 6 points ahead of the Thrashers, respectively. Beyond this important stretch of four games, the Thrashers will see a big reduction in their number of trips to the airport in the coming 40 “schedule” days. After playing the busiest schedule in the NHL over the first 3 months, the Thrashers play only 18 games — 12 at home — over those forty days.
If there was ever a time for the Thrashers to apply what they’ve learned over this past month of hard lessons, this is it. Just as I cautioned my readers in previous blogs written on the heels of an amazing run of success in November, we must remember that a young, inexperienced team is often more prone to the ups and downs of a long, grueling season. Moreover, having early success come so suddenly like it did two months ago can make it even harder for a growing team to handle as perspective and humility can be lost on the under-22 set. Then when that success turns into mettle-testing failure, it can be even harder to get things turned around in a positive direction. To paraphrase what SportSouth color analyst, Darren Eliot, stated during the last telecast, a team’s resolve and “belief is often tested before results” are achieved. Hopefully, the recent outcome in south Florida can now serve as that seminal, crystallized memory from which our young players can draw strength and energy the very next time adversity confronts them in the late stages of a close game. Without a doubt, the next 4 games the Thrashers play may very well be the toughest group of games that many of these kids have ever played as each and every team in the thick of the playoff race wants to finish strong before the All-Star break.
Apparently, the coaches and General Manager, Rick Dudley, think this next stretch of games is indeed too important to play with so much inexperience sprinkled throughout the line-up. As a result, the Thrashers have re-called from Chicago, their AHL affiliate, both winger Nigel Dawes and forward Tim Stapleton to fortify a roster that has been depleted by injuries to Jimmy Slater, Freddy Modin, Evander Kane (who is questionable for tomorrow’s tilt with Tampa) and goalie Chris Mason, who was replaced by journeyman Peter Mannino after going to the I.R. list. Speaking of which, Freddy Modin was finally placed on I.R. — probably retroactive to when his injury occurred a couple of weeks ago — and will join Slater on the list of players whose return date is even murkier than before. To make room for the call-ups, the Thrashers parted ways with ornery winger Ben Eager via trade with San Jose yesterday (for a 5th rounder in this year’s draft) and sent back to the Chicago farm AHL All-Star Spencer Machacek, who had only been given limited 4th line minutes during his short stint with the parent club. It was quite obvious that Coach Craig Ramsay did not trust his 4th line of rookies (Patrice Cormier and Alex Burmistrov included) beyond the quick 30-second “burst of energy” shift and thus they were used quite sparingly over the last three or four games.
Machacek is only 22 years of age and his future probably holds in it a destination of Atlanta next season and hopefully beyond. But with such a dearth of experience, coupled with an abundance of youth in Kane, Burmistrov, Cormier and Nicklas Bergfors on the front line, the Thrashers desperately needed an injection of battle-tested veterans. Stapleton has proven already to Coach Ramsay how defensively sound he is, and his hands, which are better than average, are adept at handling the puck and moving it out of harm’s way. As for Dawes, this will be his second stint with the Thrashers, but first appearance since he was demoted for poor play just 6 games into the season last October. Nigel comes back to Atlanta with over 200 games of NHL experience and has scored as many as 14 goals in a season twice in his career. After tearing up the AHL to the tune of 21 goals in 40 games, Dawes returns with something to prove after squandering the chance he earned in training camp earlier this year. If Dawes can use his 220 pound, fire-hydrant frame to win wall battles and get to the “greasy” areas of the ice to chip-in some hard-earned goals, then the Thrashers will be a much more formidable force for their next three opponents, including the 6th place New York Rangers, to reckon with. No matter the results, the next 7 days of games will be quite telling about your Atlanta Thrashers; will opportunity be squandered or will character and constitution be revealed even in the face of additional adversity?
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