The Canadiens will try to turn things around Tuesday against the Atlanta Thrashers, a team who have made more headlines this season for their ownership uncertainty than their play on the ice.
The Thrashers are not mathematically out of the Eastern Conference playoff picture but only a nearly impossible set of circumstances will allow them to make it. They kept their slim hopes alive by beating the Senators 5-4 in a shootout on Saturday, but they now start a five game road trip — visiting Canadiens, Philadelphia, Boston, Nashville and the Rangers — and Bill Tiller, who blogs about the team for The Atlanta Journal-Constitution calls it “their 2011 Spring Spoiler Tour,” which gives you an idea of what the locals think of their chances.
The Thrashers sit in 11th, nine points south of the playoffs, but there was a time this season when they were among the Eastern Conference leaders and even held down first place in the Southeast Division for a few minutes, running up a 12-2-2 stretch (which included a 3-0 shutout of the Canadiens) shortly before Christmas, fighting it out with the Capitals and Lightning for the Division’s top spot.
Then they went into the dumper. In their last six games of December, they got two of a possible 12 points. In January, they picked up 11 of 22 (getting skunked 9-3 by the Leafs, 6-1 by Dallas and 7-1 by the Lightning within 16 days), and in February they earned only five of 22, which really sunk them. Their 15 out of 24 points so far this month couldn’t pull them back into the top eight.
What happened? Well, the easy answer is to say they probably weren’t that good to begin with and many of the teams they beat in that stretch weren’t very good either. It’s a long season that, in Darwinian fashion, sorts out the 16 most worthy teams and with only a handful of games to go, the Thrashers have not survived.
More accurately, this is a young team, with an average age (according to NHLNumbers.com) of about 26 and a half. That’s seventh youngest in the league and five of the six teams that are younger aren’t playoff teams either. It shows in the way they play. They have trouble holding leads, losing 12 games (five after regulation) in which they’ve led after the first period, the largest number in the league, and seven in which they’ve led after two periods (five after regulation), tied for the largest number in the league. They can play a good game and be undone within a few shifts when they lose focus and get outworked or outplayed.
This is also a team that doesn’t defend well, which is a) good news for a Montreal team that isn’t scoring at all right now and b) very puzzling for a team coached by Craig Ramsay, one of the great checking forwards of all-time, a great penalty killer and a guy known in his previous stops to be a defence-first coach. But their 246 goals against is worst in the East, third worst in the NHL. They have allowed 36 more goals than they’ve scored this year. Opponents average 32.5 shots on the Atlanta goal per game, which is 27th in the league. Ramsay has worked on cutting the shots against and they’ve faced under 30 shots in 15 of their past 23 games. But they are 8-12-3 in that time.
GM Rick Dudley spoke on the team’s website with Darren Eliot two weeks ago giving his assessment of the team and, in his view, they were one of the league’s best for over half the season and then lost something, saying — in addition to youth — the schedule and some injuries didn’t work in the team’s favor (video).
They’ve gotten a relatively good season out of their most notable off-season acquisition Dustin Byfuglien, who Dudley calls his team’s star. Big Buff has 19 goals, which leads all blueliners. His 52 points rank fourth. But he’s also a minus-3. His partner, Tobias Endstrom, has also put up big numbers, some of which are good (10 goals, 41 assists, fifth among d-men) and some of which are not (minus-9). At the trade deadline, rumours circulated that GM Rick Dudley would move young d-man Zach Bogosian, but Dudley denies he was shopping 2008’s third overall draft pick, although he’d listen to an offer who would “shock” him. No one made him that offer. He’s happy with the way Bogosian is playing and thinks of him as a core player going forward. For now, he’s a minus-22 and his production has dropped from last season.
Their only 20-goal scorer is captain Andrew Ladd, who has 27 and 55 points to lead the team. Evander Kane, the fourth overall pick in 2009, has 18 goals, an improvement over last season’s 14, although he’s had nagging injuries much of the year. Former Bruin Blake Wheeler, who come over at the deadline in exchange for Rich Pevery, has done fairly well for Atlanta, with five goals and eight assists in 13 games.
The Thrashers practiced Monday and reportedly their lines looked like this:
Andrew Ladd-Bryan Little-Blake Wheeler
Evander Kane-Robbie Schremp-Nik Antropov
Eric Boulton-Alexander Burmistrov-Chris Thorburn
Ben Maxwell-Tim Stapleton-Radek Dvorak/Anthony Stewart
Thirty-four year old backup Chris Mason has started the last three games in goal with 23-year-old Ondrej Pavelec — who was hailed for his play in the first half after he recovered from his scary fainting spell on the ice early in the season opener — on the bench. Mason has won two of those games and allowed seven goals.
“Everything we do at this time of year has a purpose,” Ramsay told the media. “It doesn’t matter what happens. Chris Mason is a professional. He went through long stretches without playing. He’s been a great practice player, a great teammate and he shows up with his battle and puts his game face on. I think it was important that everybody sees that.
“It’s not just for Pavs to see, but for everybody to see what an old professional guy does, how he shows up. Three games in three and a half days and he played in all of them. When we needed him in the shootout [Sunday vs. Ottawa] he was ready and raring to go. This is just a good message for everybody.”
Chris Vivlamore of The Atlanta Journal-Constitution blogged Monday that Ramsay also told the media that centre Jim Slater, defenceman Freddy Meyer and left wing Patrice Cormier probably won’t play again this season. Slater has missed 38 games with a concussion. Meyer has missed 21 games with an upper body injury. Cormier has missed 16 games with an upper body injury.