There are big games and then there are even bigger wins. The Atlanta Thrashers earned the biggest win of their season last nite on the strength of a solid defensive effort and the brilliant shutout performance of goaltender Ondrej Pavelec, who stopped all 36 shots the Washington Capitals threw his way. While it may have only been their 5th win in 17 games — and the first in regulation since January 5th against Florida – the win over their divisional rival may have meant more to this team’s confidence and mental state than any other win they could have earned to date — even one over their arch nemeis Tampa Bay Lightning. Looking for something positive to take into the 5-day long All-Star Game respite, a depleted Thrashers team battled valiantly to preserve the 1-goal lead that Nik Antropov’s deft, top-shelf wrsiter provided to them midway through the 2nd period.
Remarkably, despite a very disheartening month featuring four horrific games in which the margin of defeat was a total of 27 to 7, the Thrashers earned their 4th win to clinch an even 4 – 4 – 3 record for January. More importantly, the victory kept the banged up Thrashers in the 8th playoff slot before the break as Carolina notched a 4 to 2 win over the Islanders to keep pace just a mere standings point behind Atlanta. By securing their 56th and 57th points in the standings, the Thrashers also gave themselves a slightly bigger cushion when it comes to their “second half” margin of error for making the playoffs.
Historically, 94 points has assured a team of a berth in the Eastern Conference race, and since the lockout, even 93 points gets a team in most years. So the task of earning 37, or perhaps even just 36, points after the ASG doesn’t seem nearly as daunting as say 39 does. By beating the Caps in regulation, the magic number of wins may have decreased to 17 from 18. While that may not seem like a big deal at first glance, for a team that has been hovering around a 1.10 to 1.15 points per game clip, earning 37 points in 30 games (1.23) is a much more palatable challenge than 39 in 30 games (1.3), which just happens to equal the high water mark for the Thrashers thus far (43 points in 35 games).
Considering how tightly bunched the standings are as we go headlong into the NHL’s annual break — the 6 teams sitting in 6th through 11th are only separated by 12 points — it seems as though 93 points will be the minimum number to earn a coveted playoff spot this year. Last year, the Flyers clinched the final spot with their shootout victory over the Rangers to get to 88 points before embarking on an improbable run to the Stanley Cup Finals. And with the frequency of O.T. loser points — an average of nearly 6 per team — getting awarded throughout the league so far, 88 or 89 points doesn’t seem likely to get it done this year.
If the minimum target is 93 points, then the Thrashers will need to win at least 16 of their games in regulation to hit that mark. A record of 16 – 10 – 4 seems like a fairly safe bet for the Thrashers, but getting to 17 or 18 wins (say 17 – 10 – 3 or 18 – 10 – 2) would likely protect them from losing out in the regulation win tie-breaker to be employed this year for the first time. For the Thrashers, who have won almost as many games in O.T. (8) as they’ve lost (9), it seems likely that they will head to the O.T. stanza or shootout skills competition another 8 to 10 times this year. Looking at the requisite minimum record above, Atlanta would most likely need to win 6 or 7 of those O.T. games to get to 16 or 17 wins. Thrashers fans won’t like to read that as their hearts are already worn down from 30 cardiac-arresting games decided by just one goal. But in light of the fact they are built to win 1-goal games, lots more overtime seems rather likely.
With such a challenge ahead, can the Thrashers beat out TWO of five teams to earn a berth to the playoff dance? To answer this question, I’ve taken a close look at the remaining schedules for the New York Rangers (6th), Montreal Canadiens (7th), Carolina Hurricanes (9th) and the Buffalo Sabres (10th). I’m going to go out on a limb and say that the Florida Panthers, losers of 4 of their last 5 games, will fade from the race by late February due to their scoring struggles and lack of depth. Plus, GM Dale Tallon has not been secretive at all about his intent to unload aging veterans with expiring contracts at this year’s deadline. Unless they win their first 5 or 6 games out of the break, I wouldn’t count on the Panthas to look very sexy in the standings by Valentine’s Day.
First and foremost, your Atlanta Thrashers have a pretty favorable “second half” schedule with an even split of 15 home games and 15 road dates. But best yet is the fact the Thrashers have only 3 remaining back-to-back sets on their schedule — a good thing for a team with a lousy 2 – 7 – 3 record in B2B games — as well as a juicy 5-game homestand in early March that follows a light 11-game schedule in February, all against teams that have similar or worse records on the season. All eleven games are winnable contests and thus, a 6 – 3 – 2 record doesn’t seem like that much of a stretch. And with 8 of the 11 coming against teams near or below them in the Eastern Conference, GM Rick Dudley can certainly envision a serious run by his young team.
New York Rangers / 61 points / 30 games left: the Rangers play 16 of 30 at Madison Square Garden, but still have a two-game West Coast roadie and another 4-game road trip remaining after a fairly benign February. They play 2 more games against the Thrashers, one in Atlanta on February 11th and the other at MSG on April 7th, which is the 2nd to last game for the Blueshirts. Lastly, the Rangers have just four B2B sets remaining, but they’ve been astoundingly good in the second game of such B2B sets going 10 – 3 – 0 to date, although only 1 – 3 – 0 in their last four such scenarios.
Montreal Canadiens / 59 points / 32 games left: the Habs play only 15 of their final 32 games at the Bell Center, where they are a formidable 16 – 6 – 4. Adding to the difficulty of their road-heavy schedule of the second half is a 3-game West Coast roadie to go along with a 3-game road-trip through the SE Division against Atlanta, Florida and Tampa in succession. For a team that has been ravaged by injuries to key players, the tough road schedule coupled with 5 more B2B game scenarios could make it very difficult to maintain their playoff slot. Not only are they are just 5 – 4 – 2 in the back-end game of those B2B’s, but they still have 10 games versus teams in the top 5 slots of the Eastern Conference. Finally, two more dates with Atlanta may prove pivotal for the Canadiens as they visit “the ATL” on 3/1 not long after their big trip west.
Carolina Hurricanes / 56 points / 32 games left: the Canes were surging in January with an 8 – 4 – 2 record to close the gap on the struggling Thrashers. But they may have the toughest finish of any of the teams listed as they play a whopping 10 additional B2B sets before it’s all said and done. Of course, the Canes have 18 of their 32 in the comfy, and potentially loud confines of the RBC Center, where they are 13 – 8 – 2 so far this year. However, they are only 12 – 11 – 4 in 27 road games thus far. While they are done with any long-flight travel, the Canes still have a challenging 5-game roadie against the likes of Philly, Tampa and Atlanta coming up in February. And finally, they face the daunting task of playing division rivals Tampa, Washington and Atlanta another 10 times, where as the Thrashers are done with both Washington and Tampa.
Buffalo Sabres / 51 points / 33 games left: the Sabres have made things interesting of late by winning 9 of their last 13 games to jump right back into the playoff race. But they too have a daunting number of B2B sets remaining (10) and their 4 – 7 – 1 record in the previous 12 back-ends of such games does not bode well for Coach Lindy Ruff and his boys. Buffalo has 17 games at home with 16 on the road including an eye-opening 7-game road trip across the eastern half of the US. Tough games on that trip include dates with Pittsburgh, Carolina, Philly, Boston and the Rangers. So it’s entirely possible that their fate will be determined on their potential, 13-day “death-March” through the schedule. And 10 of their final 12 games are part of B2B sets, setting up what should be a grueling stretch drive.
Of the five teams vying for the last three spots, I’d say that the Rangers, Canes and Thrashers have the most favorable schedules during the final 11 weeks of the season. Since the Canes are healthier and play more games at home, I give the edge to the Canes over the Canadiens in terms of schedule ease. Of all the teams, I see Montreal being the one team most in jeopardy of falling out of the top 8 spots other than the Thrashers. They have 11 difficult road dates out of the 18 remaining and they have not fared well of late losing 4 of their last 7 games, which may indicate the growing impact of their injuries to key players like Andrei Markov, Josh Gorges and Mike Cammalleri.
The Thrashers are probably the popular choice in the media to choke away their playoff spot and rightly so considering they are a lackluster 5 – 8 – 4 in the last 17 games. However, they stand to benefit the most from the All-Star break as players like Evander Kane, Andrew Ladd, Nik Antropov and Chris Mason will have a valuable week to heal. Even Jimmy Slater (concussion) may be ready to come back by the 2nd or 3rd game after the break as well. And if Toby Enstrom’s injured hand can heal in two or three weeks as opposed to four, then the Thrashers may not lose a ton of ground considering the relative ease of their February schedule. But they may still be a trade away from bolstering their scoring depth enough before the fans of Blueland can get too excited about a strong finish.
For the Thrashers, their fate may be determined by 10 key, remaining games against Buffalo (2), Carolina (4), New York (2) and Montreal (2). Bank a ton of those points and win the games they’re supposed to win against lesser teams, and prospects of a strong run seem good. However, a likely scenario that could come to fruition is getting to April with 88 or 89 points, thus needing 5 or 6 more to qualify as the #8 seed. Thus, the back-to-back games against the Rangers (@ NY) and the Canes on April 7th and 8th may turn out to be must-wins for the Thrashers. I’ve already purchased my tickets to the game on 4/8 and I fully expect the contest to either determine the 8-seed or possibly set the scene for both the Thrashers and Canes to punch their tickets to the playoffs from the Southeast Division. I hope I’m right because there is nothing like playoff hockey! 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