Wednesday nite in Raleigh, NC the Thrashers did something they hadn’t done since January 5th of this year, when they downed the Florida Panthers 3 to 2 at the Bank Atlantic Center in Sunrise, FL, which is: WIN TWO STRAIGHT GAMES!! Alas, the 2010-11 season has not been one in which the Thrashers have been closely associated with that thing known as an extended winning streak. Through 67 games, they have won at least two consecutive games on 8 separate occasions. Strangely though, they have only managed to win more than 2 in a row one such time, and that was way back in late November when the T-birds strung six wins together in succession by a convincing and startling margin of 22 to 5.
After clutch goal-scoring extraordinaire, Timmy Stapleton (wink, wink), banged home Ron Hainsey’s picture-perfect, cross-crease feed to defeat the Carolina Hurricanes in overtime by a count of 3 to 2 Wednesday nite, the Thrashers suddenly found themselves in the midst of an actual winning streak! I know, wonders never cease, do they? Next up, the Thrashers will face a stern test against yet another team, New Jersey, who is fighting for its playoff life, even if those slim hopes of a playoff berth are on life support. The scorching hot Devils – and I mean hotter than Hades hot – were winners of 14 out of 16 games since the All-Star Break before falling to the supposedly lowly Ottawa Senators on Tuesday nite. Tonite, the Thrashers have the chance to keep their slim playoff hopes alive with a third consecutive win over the Devils, and in so doing, put themselves back in 10th place, only 3 points behind the Canes (should they lose to Washington tonite), as well as put five big points between themselves and New Jersey.
So as you can see, there is a lot at stake tonite when Ilya Kovalchuk returns to the arena whose seats he filled regularly with his exciting, and sometimes exasperating, style of play. Kovalchuk has been “Captain Clutch” for the Devils by potting 6 game-winning goals since February 6th. That is no insignificant feat for a team whose coach preaches “defense first” in the effort to seemingly win every game by a one goal margin. For the Thrashers, it’s a chance to build on a resume that has redefined the phrase “slim margin” if they can figure out a way to beat New Jersey in a race to two goals, or more importantly perhaps, the first goal of the game. And while the Devils invented the “safe is NOT death” approach to winning games, the Thrashers have become quite familiar with one-goal games in their season-long effort to implement Coach Craig Ramsay’s matra “safe IS death”. So who will prevail in this collision of diametrically opposed philosophies?
The safe money is most likely going to the Devils’ side of the wagering ledger. However, if there was ever a time for a team to string together a run of success, this would be it for a green Thrashers team who has had to learn the hard way, how slim the margin between winning and losing really is in the NHL. While there are probably several teams who have played in as many 1-goal games this season, I don’t know if there is another team who has suffered as many “close, but no cigar” types of defeats as the Atlanta Thrashers. To date, the Ice Birds have played in 44 games that were decided by one of the following: a shootout (10), an overtime sudden win (13) or one-goal in regulation (21 if you include tight games that involved an empty netter at the end). Here’s how the season breaks down for the Thrashers to this point:
Games determined by overtime: 9 wins, 4 defeats with 41 goals scored & 36 given up
Games determined by shootout: 3 wins, 7 defeats with 26 goals scored & 30 surrendered
Games determined by one goal: 6 wins, 15 losses with 53 goals scored & 71 allowed (8 EN)
Overall, the Thrashers are 18 – 15 – 11 (47 out of a possible 88 points) for a points-won percentage of .534 in those 44 games. In the other 23 games decided by 2 or more goals, the Thrashers have won 10 of them in scintillating fashion while going down 13 times in ignominious defeat. What is most troubling aside from their hair-pulling inability to win shootouts with at least a 50% proficiency rate is the fact that the Thrashers haven’t been able to get it done in regulation when they had a chance to tie or hold a lead late in a game. Just think of where they might be if they had simply won 3 of those 15 close games shown above? With 3 additional wins in the win column and one more OT contest, they’d be looking at a 7-point swing and a record of 31 – 24 – 12 for 74 points rather than the 67 points they have through as many games. 74 points would be good enough for 8th place as they would hold the tie-breaking edge over the New York Rangers, whom they’ve defeated two out of three times thus far.
The margin has really been that damn slim, and as a result, many fans now have very little patience as soon as the Thrashers find themselves down a goal early in a game; my own personal patience meter has taken a beating this season and my tank is very low on not only patience, but optimism. But just when you’re ready to give up all hope, the Thrashers win two in a row and give themselves a chance to string together several more. Will it happen? Probably not as the schedule for the next 5 games is brutal with dates against Jersey, at Philly on the back end of a back-to-back, at Jersey again next week followed by a St. Patty’s Day home date with Philly and then off to Buffalo, where they were beaten soundly 4 to 1 last time.
But should they win even 7 of the next 10 points, they will still have a chance. The key will be whether they have learned enough to help them overcome short-term adversity within a game to keep working and finding a way to win valuable points in the standings when the proverbial chips are down. The last two games, both overtime wins, would lead you to believe that perhaps they are in fact turning a positive corner in their development. But we won’t know for sure how far they’ve come until a week from now. Hopefully when that time comes, I’ll be writing a column prior to the game against Buffalo about how a win over the Sabres would put them back in 8th place.
Yeah, I know, chances are SLIM.
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