Pull the Fork Out? Thrashers Claw Back into Playoff Hunt

After trading star Ilya Kovalchuk, the Thrashers battled their way into the 8th place in the Eastern Conference hopes were. Then came a winless streak in which their playoff chances just collapsed. To get back into the hunt I said they would need a winning streak of 5 of 6 games. Well they've won 3 straight (and earned one point against PHX). If they keep pace with Boston tomorrow (ATL plays PHI and BOS plays NYR) that sets up a "one game playoff" between Boston and Atlanta at Philips Arena Tuesday night. The Thrashers could potentially pass Boston with a win on Tuesday and vault back into 8th again. To pull that off they probably need to win Sunday and Tuesday which would be a 5 game win streak. Can they string together that many great efforts? Can they continue to get some friendly bounces around the net? Stay tuned.

The win over the Flyers last night was the most complete game of the season for Atlanta. They played the full 60 minutes and excelled in many areas. Defensively they were extremely dedicated to shutting down the shooting lanes--they blocked many shots--but frequently they discouraged shots with their body position. Their intensity was palpable inside the arena and the crowd responded to their energy.

The Thrashers knew the Flyers were in town and they came to play physically. They battled hard along the boards and in the corners and simply out worked the Flyers at times. The Thrashers 3rd and 4th lines were able to burn up the clock by cycling the puck deep in the Philly end. They brought a playoff level intensity last night. The Thrashers PK was a perfect 3 for 3, but the fact that they only had to kill three times is the key element. Atlanta was able to  physical and yet only allowed their power plays against. The Philadelphia PP is one of the best in the NHL and keeping them off the ice was the most effective PK possible.

In the post-game show Sully was talking about how the Thrashers were 3-0 against PHI this season after managing just 4 wins against the Flyers in the nine previous years in franchise history. Sully credited the difference to the departure of Antero Nittymaki--which certainly has helped--but I would suggest that the addition of huge players like Antropov, Kubina and Artyukhin allowed the Thrashers to match up much better. It is a lot easier for a guy like Bryan Little to play with courage and passion when he has a giant teammate out on the ice rumbling with the Flyers along the boards. In the past the Thrashers were usually man handled by the Flyers, but not so tonight.

Long term readers know that I usually have little love for Jimmy Slater. My long-term complaint against Slater was that he was overpaid for what he brought to the table. He was a 4th line guy who didn't score, didn't hit all that well and was a poor PK guy. I thought that the Thrashers could do better with their money. Well this season Slater has been a much more valuable player. Lately he has scored, hit and killed penalties more effectively--if this is the new Jimmy Slater then I want more of it. Last night Slater played with the frequently invisible Todd White and the slow footed but suddenly hot Colby Armstrong and their line was very effective at both ends. Slater has delivered some huge hits and scored goals by simply working very hard. A few seasons ago his balance was terrible and he would routinely fall down while turning--but Slater's skating and balance appears to be much improved and "blown tires" have been very infrequent this year.

Another guy who deserves a lot of praise is Nik Antropov. Simply put he has been the Thrashers most consistent forward all season. Hands down Antropov is the best free agent signing in Thrashers history. He wins all kinds of puck battles along the boards. He finished his checks. He has great touch passing the puck and and an ability to finish off chances. At the other end of the ice he so effective it is like having a 3rd defenseman back there. Antropov has dominated the opposition at Even Strength all season and his +18 rating is way ahead of any other Thrasher. A measure of credit should go to both Nik and the coaching and training staff as he has been in the lineup almost every night after missing big chunks of games in Toronto.

The third hero of the night has to be Hedberg who has been very consistent of late. Johan has been beaten by very few straight shots. Many of the goals allowed are deflections and tips--and it looked to me that the Flyers 2nd goal hit defenseman Mark Popovic. The coaching staff has a tough call to make--does Hedberg get every start the rest of the way? Do you risk wearing him out? Do you risk putting in Pavelec who has seen very few pucks lately?
The Thrashers have virtually no margin for error--I would play Hedberg the next two games and take the chance of a tired performance.

Honorable mention also goes to Colby Armstrong who is suddenly red hot after a down season in the scoring department.

I thought the Flyers top two lines showed very little passion last night. I don't think the Thrashers should expect a repeat of that tomorrow in Philadelphia. So Atlanta will have to bring their "A" game once again. You know how Atlanta fans complain after a lack luster performance? Well check out the Flyers fans ranks at Broad Street Hockey. My favorite comment: "The thing that is really pissing me off though…the damn Mooose chant after every save."

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