Less than three minutes into their season opener, the Atlanta Thrashers watched as their young starting goalie Ondrej Pavelec slumped to the ice. The Washington Capitals had been called for icing the puck and the attention of everyone in the building was focused at the opposite end of the ice. The cause of Pavalec's apparent blackout is still unclear. His collapse did not immediately follow any shot on goal or contact by another player.
The game paused as medical personnel placed Pavelec on a stretcher and escorted him off the ice. The building was silent as both players and fans were both perplexed and concerned. Once play resumed the Washington Capitals scored very quickly. The Thrashers looked like a distracted team and their defensive coverage broke down. Washington scored on a couple of slick passes for an easy back-door tap-in goal.
The season opener could have gone off the rails at that point. The Capitals are a superior team and the Thrashers had good reason to play distracted. Instead the Thrashers displayed great heart and out-hustled and out-worked a Capitals club that owned them last year. The Thrashers organization has focused on adding players with both 'character' and 'grit' over the last few years and the last night we could see it in evidence. The forecheck was very impressive at times.
After the Capitals took a 1-0 lead, the Thrashers applied terrific pressure and worked very hard below the face off dots in the Washington end. That pressure eventually resulted in a weak outlet pass which Evander Kane picked off and turned into an unassisted goal to tie the game at 1-1.
The Thrashers really took control of the game when Mike Green of the Capitals was whistled for covering the puck during a scramble in the goalie crease. The coaching staff was allowed to pick any Thrasher who was on the ice and they choose Kane who stick handled in very close and then chipped it stick side (I was worried he had waited too long to shot the puck). 3-1 Atlanta and their confidence was high.
The Capitals had a big opportunity to get back in the game twice in the 3rd when Bogosian and Kane were whistled for penalties, but the PK unit was strong and got the kill on both occasions. This is even more impressive when you consider that the PK unit used players like Burmistrov, Little and Stewart who have almost no experience on the PK at the NHL level.
Washington did pull within one after Ovechkin drew the defender's attention and then made a nice pass to Knuble. The Capitals could have potentially rallied to tie the game, but Antropov was battling hard for a puck off the faceoff, a Capitals player was able to chip it past Antropov but big rangy Frederick Modin corralled the soft clear and got off a high shot that gave Atlanta some breathing space down the stretch.
Overall it was a very impressive game for the Thrashers. The defensive zone break out--which had looked ragged in the pre-season--worked fine and the team was very efficient in getting the puck out of their end. The penalty kill was perfect. The power play looked weak in their first opportunity, but managed a terrific chance later in the game. But more than anything the even strength play was outstanding at times. The Thrashers took care of the puck in the neutral zone and had few unnecessary turnovers. The offensive pressure in the corners was eye-opening--I can't remember a Thrashers game where they won so many pucks down low and cycled the puck like they did last night. Not to take anything away from the Thrashers but the Capitals looked down right sluggish at times. The Thrashers should expect Washington to compete harder the next time these two teams face-off. And credit to Atlanta for exploiting a less than terrific performance by the opposition.
Some individual highlights:
- In pre-season Kane looked very good and he certainly showed it last night delivering hits and scoring important goals.
- Replacing Pavel Kubina on the blueline is not easy, but last night I thought Brent Sopel had a very solid game where he repeatedly snuffed out opposition chances. He's a no frills kind of player, but he was effective.
- Burmistrov continued to show no fear or working hard in the corners. He looks tiny out there as an 18 year old playing against men, but clearly he showed NHL speed and the determination that Rick Dudley praised at the NHL Draft.
- Dustin Byfuglien was solid in his opening night after returning to defense. He pinched in once and nearly scored a goal off a great pass. I don't recall the Thrashers allowing many odd man rushes against when he was out there.
- Chris Mason was very solid when called into the game in a relief role. He was square to the shooter and made a several quality side-to-side saves.
Overall a terrific team effort on the forecheck and the cycle. A big test coming up tonight in Tampa where Atlanta often struggles against Vinny Lecavalier--can the Thrashers build on their success? Another long term question is the health of Ondrej Pavalec and when he can return to being 100%.