Just When You Think You’re Out, THEY PULL YOU BACK IN!

Didn’t the sun already set on the Atlanta Thrashers? Didn’t their season essentially end with the recent 1 - 5 – 1 slide that followed the loss to the Canes (and the subsequent loss of their hold on 8th place) back on February 13th? Why must the Thrashers tease us this way and give us reason again to think they can still make a run at the playoffs?! You thought you were done; you thought you were finally OUT!! But no, the torture of a lackluster January, followed by a disastrous February, wasn’t enough for the local pro hockey team known as the ”Thrash-hearts“. You know, the team who seemingly loves to crown its fans as the collective King of Wishful Thinking. Here we go again right? Here we go, as fans, down the “lonely street of dreams” to find only a roadblock at the end, right? And to make matters worse last Saturday, the Thrashers had the audacity to torment us and tantalize us all within the same damn game by storming back from a 3-goal deficit, and then again from a 2-goal margin, to tie the Flyers with only 44 breath-stealing seconds left on the clock. Then they take us to even more dizzying heights of euphoria with a triumphant 3-player, odd-man rush that punctuated the emotional roller-coaster ride with a beautiful goal and a 5 to 4 sudden victory in overtime – I’m out of breath just thinking about it again. You thought your were done. You thought you could move on with your life. But NO! You’re not done, as the excitement of such a game — coupled with thoughts of a historic run — pulls you back in. You’re not THIS gullible right? No, but you’re worse than that, you are: a Thrashers fan.

As a weathered Thrashers fan, you are quite familiar with the insidious history of the Atlanta Thrashers to play like world beaters in the months of November and December, only to find them playing like fools in February — fools that piss away an entire half season of progress in the process. As recently as last season, the Thrashers had us believing that things would be different, but this time, the annual Thrashers collapse was initiated earlier than usual when the boys lost 8 straight games to end 2009 and then ushered in 2010 with a thud by losing 2 of 3 games by a margin of 13 to 3. However, the team somehow got its act together and played just well enough over the next 16 games (prior to the Olympic Games) to entice Thrashers fans into thinking a post-Olympic “March to the Playoffs” was indeed a possibility.

Well, right out of the gate, the Thrashers won two straight and their convincing win over the lowly Islanders was just enough to trick us into thinking “miracles do happen”. But such thinking really is insidious when it comes to Thrashers hockey as it serves only to batter, then beat and then scar your mental composition, sometimes irrevocably. Despite a 6-game winless streak after the win over the Long Island Fishermen, the Thrashers managed to ramp up hopes again by the middle of their “March” with an ensuing 4-game win streak, which set up a pivotal game against the visiting Boston Bruins, a game that would ultimately bestow 8th place in the standings as its victory spoil to the winner. Of course, as soon as we started to think that the Thrashers might do the unthinkable, they then proceed to yank the rug out from under our silly, gullible asses by “pooping the bed” in a big game. But who could blame us for wanting to believe? The team had managed to overcome a bad stretch of hockey to not only win four in a row, but also vanquish theretofore “kryptonitic” nemesis, the Philadelphia Flyers, in improbable fashion, winning back to back games against their usually unbeatable antagonist.

Strangely, the Thrashers arrived at that point in their schedule last season with an eerily similar record of 29 – 29 – 11 before winning 3 more games to get to 75 points in 72 games. They found themselves taking the ice for a game against the Bruins to see who would leave it as the 8th place team in the standings. As you well know, the Thrashers left that game as merely a 9th place team, one that had foolishly dared to dream only to be punished by some sort of karmic historical force, which seems to take unusual delight in watching the fans of expansion hockey franchises suffer great mental anguish and harm before ever tasting the spoils of victory in big games beyond the Ides of March. Today, the 15th of March has arrived once again with the Thrashers confronting historical inevitability as they prepare for tonite’s important contest with the New Jersey Devils at 7pm. Has there ever been a more apropos moment and place for a young team to face its franchise’s historical demons as the Ides of March at the Prudential Center in Newark, NJ??

Tonite, the Thrashers stand on the precipice of their tumultuous season staring headlong into the abyss of spoiled opportunity and unrealized potential. Will this Thrashers team simply crumble under the weight of history once again and slip into that despair-inducing, dark abyss? Or can they continue to build on the progress they’ve made thus far in March, a month in which they’ve shaken off the frustration and disappointment of a 2 – 7 – 2 February, to win three of their last four games?

Since the 4 to 1 disaster on the road in Buffalo on the 23rd of February, the T-birds have cobbled together a good stretch in which their hard work and determination has actually yielded points in the standings. With the dramatic, come from nowhere, overtime win over Philadelphia on Saturday, the Thrashers earned (stole) their 9th and 10th points out of the last 16 available on the schedule. Once again, the Thrashers arrive at a crossroads in their season with a record of 29 – 28 – 12 for 70 points (through 69 games), exactly one overtime point ahead of where they were last year after beating Buffalo 4 to 3 on March 16, 2010. A week later though, the Thrashers were beaten soundly (4 to 0) by Boston and any further thought of making the playoffs was eradicated with a miserable 4 to 1 defeat at the pads of Cam Ward and the Canes (go figure, did Erik Cole score the game-winner??).

For this Thrashers team, the final few nails have not yet been driven through the coffin door. But the graveyard caretaker can be seen in the distance and his hand is full of nails. There are just 13 games to go before the season is etched into the history book for all time. If the Thrashers are to pull a fast one on the ominous, lurking caretaker, they will need to win at least 9 games in the final month of the season. But, they haven’t won 9 games in any 30 day span since the win over Nashville on my birthday (December 6th) gave them 9 wins in only 26 days. It took them until January 26th – just 51 days later! – to win 9 more. Since then, the boys have only tasted success five times out of 17 tries. But 3 of the wins have come in the last four. Perhaps this is the start of a magical run to the playoffs? History would say to doubt that potential outcome greatly. However, the Thrashers may not need magic to pull this off.

Two of the teams (New York Rangers and Carolina Hurricanes) they are chasing have been struggling since February 1st much like the Thrashers. The Rangers are 7 – 10 – 1 since the All-Star Game and the Canes have slumped to a 6 – 9 – 4 record since then. The Thrashers, who occupied 8th place as recently as February 13th, have won one game fewer than the Canes since that time, but now can catch their division rival  with a win tonite and a loss by Carolina in Buffalo. Of course, it might be better if Carolina were to beat Buffalo so the Thrashers can hopefully close the 6-point gap on the Sabres with wins over Jersey (tonite), Philly on Thursday and Buffalo on Saturday. See, the Thrashers don’t need to rattle off 8 or 9 straight wins to make the playoffs. Win games two through four in a row this week and they will find themselves tied with Buffalo, who only plays Carolina before then, by week’s end possibly. No one expected the Thrashers to come back from a 3-goal deficit Saturday nite, so no one should count Atlanta out of the playoff picture just yet.

Let’s say, for the sake of argument, that they do in fact win these next 3 games and find themselves enjoying a share of 8th place with Buffalo on Sunday, March 20th. That means the Thrashers would have 76 points through 72 games and suddenly on pace for 87 points. Last season, 88 points was enough to get into the playoffs so to think that the Thrashers could earn 12 more points over their final 10 games is not all that farfetched. A record of 6 – 3 – 1 would be enough for 89 points and possibly the final playoff spot in the Eastern Conference. Thus, the “magic number” for the Thrashers appears to be 4 as in four losses. Anymore than that and the Thrashers’ playoff aspirations are cooked.

I know what you’re thinking: “come on Jason, you know better than to even think about making the playoffs!!” Of course I do, but I’m not afraid to hope for a short run of success in the near term so that a young Thrashers team (keep in mind we have 12 players at or below the age of 26 and several others who have never even played in a playoff game) can play as many meaningful games as possible down the stretch and thus be better off in the long term. See, it doesn’t really matter if the Thrashers come up short of the playoffs as this is not the team, as currently constructed, that we will see battle for a top 8 spot next season and beyond. While the core components are in place, the team as a whole is far from complete. Hopefully the experience they can gain from this next dozen or so games will help them develop a sense for how to win critical games and prepare them for a more successful year next season. But, in the meantime, why not foil the creeping undertaker and keep those 4 remaining nails in his pocket for the forseeable future?

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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

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  1. Kbelle says:

    DAMN! Now the creeping undertaker only holds 3 nails. I agree that the experience gained by the “youngsters” is invaluable for their NHL development and hope they get lots of “play time” in the next few weeks. It’s time to make the doughnuts!!