Atlanta Coach Craig Ramsay openly questioned his team's courage after last Saturday's mortifying 8-2 defeat at the hands of the Buffalo Sabres:
"We didn’t really compete. It shows up when players are trying to get out of the way of a shot rather than into the way a shot. That kind of says it all. It was extremely disappointing to watch that. We had a whole bunch of guys feeling sorry for themselves and looking around trying to find someone else to blame instead of looking at themselves and taking charge."
The Thrashers looked poised to close the four point gap that at that time separated them from Buffalo. They had gone 4-1-1 in their past six games and were playing significantly better hockey. It was almost as though they knew what was on the line.
And then once they fully realized that, they panicked.
A predominantly young team does that sometimes when pressure gets to them, and that is what the Thrashers are - a young team with a few vets thrown in to temper the mix. The problem on Saturday is that the seasoned players also stood by and were active observers in the most demoralizing defeat of the season. That game is in the past, though, and the team has to move forward with the last ten games of the season.
One player who has something to prove is Rob Schremp. Schremp, claimed on the trade deadline after being put on waivers by the Islanders, will be facing his former team for the first time. He has one goal since joining the Thrashers, but got a chance to show his stuff a week ago in a shootout against the Flyers. Schremp doesn't hold a grudge against his old team, though. As he told the AJC's Chris Vivlamore:
"There are no hard feelings. It’s part of hockey. There are a lot of guys there they are re-signing and I don’t think I was in the picture. I don’t have any hard feelings. I understand what the game is like. I appreciate what they did for me as far as giving me a chance."
There better be some hard feelings by the rest of the Thrashers, and those need to be directed at themselves if they want to play well tonight. An Islanders win will put New York in a three-way tie for eleventh place in the conference; something that Atlanta doesn't want or need. Since the All-star break, the two teams have been playing their way in very opposite directions. The Islanders have been playing good hockey as of late, and their young team is showing that they might be a bit more trouble next season.
The Islanders' team philosophy's a bit different than the Thrashers' right now. Says Frans Neilsen:
"We go out and we compete hard for 60 minutes and try to have fun," Nielsen said. "Everybody is chipping in for the team right now."
One team having fun, and one team gripping their sticks too hard. Welcome to the increased expectations of the final stretch of the season - Atlanta's putting too much on themselves, and the Islanders have nothing to lose.