Despite the final score, tonight’s game wasn’t one-sided or a poor effort by Atlanta. In fact, it was a fairly good rebound from an atrocious game Tuesday night. The team responded to the shuffling of lines, and players gave a solid effort. Unfortunately for the Thrashers, they wound up facing the current hottest goaltender in the Western Conference and a team who is now on a six game winning streak.
That isn’t an excuse for tonight’s loss, because this effort, unlike Tuesday night’s, needed no excuses. It was generally a much improved game, with concentration and focus – but the ability to finish wasn’t there. The game did not get off to the best start, with Evander Kane taking a double minor for high sticking just fifty-five seconds into the game. The Thrashers killed off the entire penalty, though technically Mark Giordano’s goal came when Kane was still off-ice at 4:55. For a team that has been having serious penalty kill woes, to kill off a four minute penalty’s a huge step.
Bryan Little tied the game just fifty-eight seconds into the second period for his fourteenth goal of the year, putting him in second place behind Dustin Byfuglien for the team lead in goals. At 11:14 of the second period, Anthony Stewart scored his thirteenth goal of the season on an outstanding cross-crease pass from Nik Antropov to beat Mikka Kiprusoff. Something I’ve harped on the Thrashers for a great deal (for probably the past four years, at the very least) has been their inability to get someone in position for those cross-crease passes to take advantage of open net. Antropov to Stewart was executed perfectly.
Unfortunately, the lead didn’t last, because fifty-five seconds later Brendan Morrison exploited a wide open net on the Thrashers’ side. For all the effort finally getting someone to the open side of the opponent’s net, the Thrashers still haven’t realized that it’s important as well to get someone to the open side of your own net to prevent rebounds.
The game went into the third period tied, and stayed that way until Mikael Backlund got a puck between the pads of Ondrej Pavelec for the lead. Pavelec could have stopped that puck, but more importantly the team could have managed to clear the puck. A botched clearing attempt did not help the Thrashers in this case – or ever. A few seconds before the goal, Byfuglien was checking anyone wearing a Calgary jersey. He had fire all night – it was evident that he was frustrated that he can’t seem to score, and it is also evident that he’s frustrated at the way that the Thrashers were playing.
An empty-net goal by Curtis Glencross sealed the deal for Calgary, who as of right now sit in 8th place in the Western Conference thanks to tonight’s win. The Thrashers caught another break in the form of a Carolina Hurricanes loss to the Toronto Maple Leafs, 3-0. Unfortunately, the Thrashers inability to get even a point on Carolina tonight makes Saturday’s game in Raleigh even more important. A loss sends them out of the playoff picture.
If the Thrashers can play Saturday with the same effort they did tonight, they could force an extra point. If, though, they ramp it up just a bit, they can win. Getting their momentum back is essential, and what better time to do it than when they’re playing the very team that’s breathing down their neck. The lucky breaks have to run out sooner or later – the Thrashers need to make their own luck.
Kudos again to Byfuglien, who backed up his concern regarding accountability with 26:57 of ice time. That’s very nearly half of the hockey game, and practically unheard of. Also significant was Nik Antropov going 75% in the face-off circle. Generally the team played a much tighter defensive effort, allowing only 24 shots on goal, an improvement from the 33 allowed Tuesday night.