Poor me a beer so I can wash the sadness away. Not because it’s St. Patty’s Day though. No, because I’m a Thrashers fan who was foolish enough to believe in this year’s team. Going into the season, I knew better. We’re too young; new coach and new system; too many new pieces trying to mesh together as one; the task would be too daunting. But what ends up happening to lay my modest expectations to waste? The Thrashers, despite a sluggish, fitful start to the season in which they somehow scraped together 6 wins and 14 points through the first 12 games of the season, surprise everyone and rise into second place in the Eastern Conference standings by the end of November.
By December 18th, after throttling Ilya Kovalchuk’s desperate Devils, 7 to 1, the boys of Blueland found themselves sitting atop the Southeastern Division. Even after a mild late December slumber, the Thrashers had stocked away 46 points in 40 games for the bitter, cold of winter. After a dramatic shootout win over the Boston Bruins at home in late December, dreams of a playoff berth danced in out heads like daydreams of the presents we didn’t get on Christmas morning. The Thrashers were scoring right at 3 goals per game and had us all convinced that they didn’t need a superstar, Russian sniper or even a grizzled, battle-tested, Canadian scoring wing for that matter. At that point, many of us didn’t think we needed much of anything to help bolster a young and inexperienced line-up, one that featured nearly a dozen players at or under the age of 26.
Sure, by mid-January, the Thrashers were having their share of ups and downs – a 9 to 3 thrashing at the hands of visiting Toronto comes to mind – but Dustin Byfuglien was still leading the league in game-winning goals (six) and the Thrashers were still stealing points when perhaps they weren’t even playing that well. Despite the topsy-turvy season to date, the Thrashers still found themselves with 23 wins and 55 points through 50 games despite losing a gut-wrenching set of shootouts in back to back games against Tampa and New York.
To that point, these boys, who didn’t know any better, were still having fun and “Daddy hadn’t taken the T-bird away” just yet, but this precocious bunch of baby birds was in for a rude winter awakening. The next 20 games would prove quite hostile and a “brutally good time” turned into a brutally long, hard ride for your green, yet once plucky Atlanta Thrashers team.
The playoffs seemed like a veritable lock, did they not? 55 points through 50 games was still a 90-point pace and all we needed was some slightly above average play after the All-Star Break, right? 16 or 17 more wins for 34 or 35 points in 32 games were all we would need. No problem at all right? Boy, were we ever mistaken! Following game 50 was a stinging and disheartening “bitch-slap” of a game down in Tampa in which we not only lost the game (7 to 1), but also one of our two All-Star defenseman, Tobias Enstrom, to an injury that would sideline him for six games. All of a sudden, all of our playoff dreaming seemed rather premature and foolish. Such fools we were hoping and believing in a team that no one else cared about, not even the owners!!
After reaching their final high-water mark of 55 points, the Thrashers went on to lose 5 of their next 6 games, four straight coming out of the All-Star break. Apparently, extra rest and time to think on the progress they had made was too much for this young group to absorb and handle mentally. Just like that the weight of expectation made hockey seem like a strenuous chore and the team slipped into an early February malaise. They started to break out of their funk with better play leading up to a game against the New York, one in which they won with a dramatic, 3rd period surge in which Evander Kane banged home two goals to help them defeat the Rangers 3 to 2 and maintain a tenuous grip on the 8th playoff seed. The next day would not be so kind as the Thrashers played inspired hockey, peppering Cam Ward of the Canes with 43 shots on goal, only to find themselves on the short end of the outcome one more time as Erik Cole fired yet another dagger into their hearts with his own late, 3rd period goal to secure the regulation win. However, falling out of 8th place wasn’t enough bad news for our lousy ownership group.
Just three days later, they decided to heap more troubling news on top of the pile of disappointment and frustration that had accumulated to that point. Majority owner Michael Gearon, Jr. announced to the world that he wasn’t just taking away the team’s T-bird away, but that he was selling it right from under them. Essentially, by breaking the news at such an inopportune time, he made it seem as though he was scolding his team for having too much fun and driving too fast and too aggressively in Daddy’s depreciating asset. And he admonished fans for having the audacity to express some collective doubt by not coming out in droves to sell-out an arena that he was apparently trying to sell anyway. In short, the news he delivered right after Valentine’s Day was like a swift kick to the “nards” by a sly and deceptive spouse who was now telling us that he had never really loved us at all.
Such is the turbulent and tumultuous existence of an Atlanta Thrashers fan. We watch our team rise to new heights and stun everyone into thinking that this team would be different. But like Icarus, the team was flying much, much too high with flimsy wings, which had not yet fully formed nor grown strong enough to weather the elements they would encounter high above the stratosphere they had risen to. Suddenly, a team that had been soaring was now nose-diving like Chris Thorburn into a loose puck scrum in front of the net. Since the 50-game mark, the boys who once played like men have struggled to a mere 6 wins and 15 points over the last 20 games. They now find themselves mired in 12th place, looking up at several other teams including the same Devils whom they throttled mercilessly at home back in December. Now, it’s New Jersey that is doing the bedeviling as they have beaten our “Thrash-hearts” in two of the last three games, both in excruciating late-game fashion.
The most recent 20 games don’t really look much different than the last 30 games since that high-water precipice of 46 points through 40 games. In the first 20 games after the 3 to 2 win over Boston back on December 30th, the boys of Blueland played to a record of 5 – 11 – 4 for only 14 points out of a possible 40. The scoring suddenly dried up and goaltender, Ondrej Pavelec, started to fatigue badly. Once mighty and All-Worldly, Pavelec fell back to earth with a resounding thud. At one point, Ondrej was second in the league in both save percentage (up around .945) and goals against average (down around 2.25). Over that 20 game stretch, Pavelec would yield 62 goals in the 19 games he appeared in, getting the quick hook two times within three weeks. To make matters worse, the Thrashers lost their scoring touch and a team that regularly scored 3 goals or more suddenly could not dent the twine with any consistency. In games 41 through 60, their shooting percentage fell to 7.5% and they averaged just 2.3 goals per game en route to 15 frustrating losses (four in OT or shootouts). In contrast, they were giving up nearly 3.65 goals per game and Pavelec’s save percentage plunged to .897 during that stretch. Even if you adjust for the three blowout losses they suffered, the goals against average would still be up around 3.15-3.20 for a mediocre save percentage of .900 or so.
Well, the last 20 games have not been much different (with a record of just 6 – 11 – 3) and the Thrashers have only managed to improve in one area: shots on goal. Unfortunately, the increased number of shots hitting the opposition goalie’s pads and protective gear has only served to increase the frustration of Thrashers skaters. Despite averaging nearly 34 shots per game over the most recent 20 games (games 51 – 70), the team has only scored 46 goals for a shooting % of 6.78 and a goal-scoring average of 2.30. And for a time, the goaltending got even worse as Pavelec and Chris Mason (only one game) combined to give up 36 goals in ten games. Over the last 10 games, thanks in large part to Mason’s improved play, the Thrashers have only given up 27 goals (not counting empty netters and S/O). As a result, the results have been better and they have won 4 times with 10 points in those 10 games. But it hasn’t been enough as they are still losing several close games or failing to hold early leads.
The team has been trying like the dickens to get back up off the ground, but they keep getting pushed back down. With only 12 games to go, the playoffs look more like a distant mirage and the likelihood of surging enough to eek out a playoff berth is quite infinitesimal. There are too many teams to leap-frog and not enough consistency in the Thrashers’ game for them to suddenly reel off nine or 10 wins in the final month of the season. Stranger things have happened, but not when it comes to the team whose sweaters are adorned with a frenetic, swirling Thrasher bird. These birds are thrashing and flailing in the desperate attempt to make us believe in them once again, but at this point, it seems like an exercise in futility. If nothing else, perhaps the last-gasp efforts of this green group of baby birds during the final few weeks of the season will be just what their wings require as they grow into mature, veteran birds of prey – the kind of birds that eventually grow so hungry and ambitious that only playoff success will be enough to satiate them.
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