As the Atlanta Thrashers play their second game within 22 hours down in Tampa Bay, FL against their favorite divisional tormentor, the Lightning, I have been crunching some numbers to see how dire things have become for the slumping Ice Birds. After losing yet again in the shootout to the New York Rangers last nite in Blueland, their tenuous grasp on the 8th playoff seed has become even more so with the compounding inability to close out games and win 2 points in regulation. By “earning” 2 OT loss points in the last 2 games, the Thrashers have maintained their 3 point cushion on a suddenly struggling Carolina Canes team that has lost 3 of its last 4 games. However, the pesky Canes still have two games in hand on your Atlanta Thrashers.
At a record of 23 – 18 – 9 through 50 games for 55 points, the Thrashers now sit in a position that allows them very little margin of error if they are to make the playoffs this season. Unfortunately, after resembling a jack-knifed tractor trailer on an icy highway a week or so ago, the Thrashers now find themselves spinning their wheels in some treacherous icy slush at the crossroads of their season. Or as my good friend Bill “Rawhide” Tiller of the ajc.com’s Thrashers’ Fan Blog, the Thrashers seem to find themselves stuck in a stitch in time like Bill Murray’s character in the classic comedy “Groundhog Day“. Making matters worse is the fact that the team is more banged up than I’ve ever seen a Thrashers team in my 5 years of following them closely. Nagging injuries to Evander Kane, Freddy Modin, Zach Bogosian earlier this season and Jimmy Slater, who has missed 8 straight games due to a concussion, have severely limited Coach Ramsay‘s options when it comes to forming potent, balanced scoring lines. As if that wasn’t enough, the Thrashers today discovered new injuries to key blueline cog Tobias Enstrom (hand) and captain Andrew Ladd, who both have been held out of today’s game in Tampa.
Obviously the injuries have been a huge factor in the Thrashers’ recent woes. Without their full complement of starting forwards, the scoring has dried up like a salted slug over the past month. In the last 15 games, the Thrashers have only managed 34 goals, and that’s if you count their two “gimmick goals” scored in shootout wins over Boston and Florida. For a team that is built to score first and grind out wins in low-scoring games, the Thrashers have slid into a rut in which they give up 1-goal leads consistently and then let the 2nd standings point slip through their fingers in either OT or a SO. Moreover, the Thrashers have not held a 2-goal lead since their mid-December game against Toronto when they sprinted out to a 5 to 1 lead before giving up two late goals for a 6 to 3 win. Since that game on 12/20/10, the Thrashers have scored more than 3 goals only one time and that was an overtime win at the Bell Centre in Montreal, a pivotal win if there ever was one at the time. But scoring just 2 goals and then losing in OT is becoming a disturbing trend for a team whose Head Coach referred to them as “fragile” in a recent interview with beat writer Chris Vivlamore.
Assuming the Thrashers lose this game — and it’s now likely they will as Lightning has struck twice in 2 minutes to give the Bolts a 2 to love lead — their margin of error over their final 29 games will become quite miniscule. Thus far on the season, the Thrashers have earned points at a rate of 1.10 per game for 55 points in 50 games. Projected out, that rate of production will net the Thrashers only 90 points, which would fall short in the race to 93 or 94 points likely needed to secure a playoff berth. To earn at least 93 points, the Thrashers would need to earn 38 points in their final 32 games…make that 31 games as Tampa has just scored again for an insurmountable 3-goal lead. 38 points in 31 games equates to a points earned rate of 1.23 over the final 2 months-plus of action. Translated into wins and losses, the Thrashers would have to win at least 18 out of the next 31 games, which would be a much higher winning percentage than what they’ve attained to date. A record of 18 – 11 – 2 or 17 – 10 – 4 to accumulate the needed 38 points seems awfully daunting for a team that has only won 4 times in its last now 16 games (it’s now 4 to 0 erasing any trace of hope for a comeback).
What are the reasons for this dismal and frustrating stretch of hockey, and gradual fade into hockey ignominy? Well, the reasons are three-fold. First, as pointed out above, injuries to a team with limited depth is obviously a big factor and is the likely catalyst for this slide. The second reason stems from the team’s overall lack of skill and hockey talent, which has finally been exposed by NHL coaches. The once potent offensive attack of the Thrashers has faded away and goals are now hard to come by. Through 35 games, the Thrashers looked like world beaters scoring 116 goals for an average of 3.31 per game. But that was when they were healthy, aggressive and streaking. Since then, they have potted only 34 goals, barely a clip of 2.25 per game. Exacerbating the problem is that the Thrashers are no longer getting the secondary scoring from their bottom two lines like they were earlier in the season. Players like Alex Burmistrov, Eric Boulton, Chris Thorburn and until recently, Anthony Stewart, have stopped scoring — just 4 goals in their last 16 games — and replacements and reinforcements like Tim Stapleton, Patrice Cormier and Spencer Machacek have produced just 1 goal and 2 assists in a dozen or so games of action. Now that teams have had time to study plenty of film of the Thrashers and attack their obvious weaknesses (both a severe lack of depth and experience), they have struggled mightily, which is, in turn, placing more pressure on their top guns Ladd, Peverley and Byfuglien, all of whom have gone through prolonged slumps over the past month — Byfuglien is mired in a wretched 9-game scoreless slump. Not only is the lack of depth placing pressure on the top line and defensive pairing to score more, but it is also putting too much pressure on the team to score timely and clutch power play goals.
And that brings us to the third key aspect of this team’s alarming fall into a deepening well of mediocrity. Without a consistent and dangerous power play, the Thrashers have a hard time scoring 3 or more goals in a game. When they do score a PPG, their record is a very respectable 14 – 8 – 6. But without one, they are a very mediocre 9 – 10 – 3. More impressive is their record of 10 – 2 – 5 when scoring more PPG than their opponent. Unfortunately, there have been 22 games prior to today in which they did not dent the twine with a man-advantage. And since their PP’s torrid start in which they scored 27 PPG in 28 games, they have only managed 11 PPG in the last 22, about to be 23 games. For a team with a paucity of talented forwards and sniping wingers, that is a very bad trend indeed. The Thrashers have struggled all year with zone entries on the PP and relied too heavily on shoot-ins and dump-ins to get their attack started. Teams are keying on the face-offs to limit the Thrashers chances of working a dangerous point play and deflection of a booming Dustin Byfuglien slapper. The T-birds have not improved in their ability to enter the zone with speed on the rush and are now paying the price. Until some adjustments are made and / or the Thrashers get totally healthy, the PP may struggle indefinitely.
If the Thrashers can get healthy over the All-Star Game break — which is 5 days long — and work on adding some wrinkles to their PP, the season can be salvaged. Whether they can duplicate their 17 – 11 – 3 stretch to open the season or rediscover the magic of their triumphant mid-November surge remains to be seen. And a 7 to 1 drubbing at the hands of the Lightning doesn’t bring thoughts of optimism readily to mind. However, this team has shown a fairly impressive degree of resilience over the course of 51 games. They have played a ton of close games and probably lost as many 1-goal games as they’ve won. Thus, it may only take a couple of wins back to back to snap out of this funk and spark another extended winning streak. But top-flight players like Andrew Ladd, Rich Peverley, Evander Kane and Nik Antropov need to elevate their games. Combined, Ladd and Peverley have only 9 G and 5 A with a minus-17 over the past 16 games, while the goal scoring of Nick Bergfors and Bryan Little has been erratic.
On the flip side, Antropov has been better of late with a goal and 6 assists in his last 10 games despite little assistance from his normal line mates. Perhaps the long rest he gets at the end of January will help his ailing hip heal enough to get closer to his production of last March, when he racked up 23 or 24 points in 17 games. But it won’t matter if the Thrashers can’t reignite their balanced scorning attack in which all lines are contributing and causing headaches for their opponents. All hope is not lost, but yet another dismal January swoon — and a record of 3 – 4 – 3 — has Thrashers Nation bemoaning in great disgust what is starting to look like another season lost. And with the recent news of the ownership’s intent to sell the Thrashers all along, the already downtrodden and alienated fan-base is now swimming in a morass of negativity and angst. The only elixir for what ails this town’s hockey fans is a long winning streak and a successful 2-month stretch of hockey. But right now, support of the Thrashers seems much more like a poisonous potion of regret. AUTHOR’S NOTE: In their 4 regulation losses this month, the Thrashers have been outscored by a whopping margin of 27 – 7…no doubt, when the damn leaks, it bursts the hell right open!!
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