clock menu more-arrow no yes mobile

Filed under:

The Season Begins: Games 1 and 2

New, 1 comment
I held off posting after the 3-2 shootout loss in the home opener because I was afraid I’d say too many negative things I might regret later. After game 2 there are more reasons to be optimistic and still plenty of reasons to be concerned.

Game 1 of the season saw a team that looked very strong in the 1st period fade away in the 2nd and 3rd as they lost momentum and energy. The Thrashers came close to not registering a single shot in the 2nd period. Obviously, you are not going to win many games where a team only generates 11 shots on goal.

The team looked out of sync at times as Tampa clogged the neutral zone. When the Thrashers did dump the puck into the Tampa end, the Lightning were able to get to the puck and move it out very effectively. The Lightning also benefited from having Marc Denis in net—he should be an upgrade from their two-headed goaltending nightmare of last season.

The Thrashers added three centers in the off-season (Rucchin, N. Kapanen and Metropolit) and in the early going the role that each will play is still very much up in the air. Hartley had fairly stable lines much of last season but that may not hold true this season. Right now he has Metropolit centering Hossa and Kozlov, but I would rather see Kapanen in that spot. I would also like to see Holik and Slater get more ice time than they have thus far.

I’ve always admired J.P. Vigier for his hard work and tenacity, but he got tossed around like a rag doll in the home opener and I do wonder if he can keep a job in the NHL. I don’t understand why he is getting so many PK minutes that ought to be going to Slater in my opinion.

By far the most encouraging thing in games one and two has been the sharp decline in quality scoring chances by the opposition. With Kari Lehtonen and Hedberg in the net the Thrashers should be able to make big strides in limiting goals against if they can reduce the number of breakaways, point blank chances and wide open men in the slot. Last year the team gave up far too many of those type of scoring chances. Thus far this season they have allowed one clean cut breakaway (that I recall) in each game, but the overall the defensive coverage in their own end has been MUCH better than the 2005-06 season. The effect of that improved coverage shows up in a team Goals Against Average that is just under 1.00 after 125 minutes of NHL hockey. They will not be able to keep that up over a full season, of course, but it is a very positive sign.

The 2nd most positive sign for this team is the improved defense play of star Ilya Kovalchuk. When he first arrived in the NHL Kovalchuk showed no desire to play defense and on those rare occasion when he did want to do something he was usually in the wrong spot or made the wrong play. Last season there were more moments where Kovalchuk looked like he wanted to help out but he still seemed fairly clueless about what exactly he was supposed to be doing. It is early, but what I’ve seen so far has me very encouraged. Not only does Ilya want to help in his own zone, but more often than not he is in the right spot and he is making the correct play. For example, in years past he would usually try to catch a clearing pass inside his own blueline even if he was being covered by a defensemen. This year he has is just tipping the puck out over the blueline when he is being covered and making sure that the opposition is forced to clear the Thrashers zone. Another play that shocked me was the sight of him diving to try and tip an errant pass in the neutral zone. There was no way Ilya was going to catch the pass, he was diving to try and tip it so that there would be no icing call—I was impressed.

After two games there are reasons to be concerned and reasons to be excited. Despite my model which predicts the Thrashers finishing out of the playoffs, I believe this team has a shot at making the postseason but it will take several things:
1) The three star caliber players (Hossa, Kovalchuk and Lehtonen) must be healthy.
2) There must be major improvements in team defense.
3) The offense much not bog down too much in the absence of Savard.

As far as the offense goes, the big wild card for this team is the play of defensemen Steve McCarthy. If you look at his stats in Chicago and Vancouver they are fairly unimpressive. However, in his brief stint with Atlanta last spring he was a revelation. The question is which is the real Steve McCarthy? Is he an offensive defensemen waiting to explode on the NHL scene or will he return to his previous level of performance? If the former is true, then the Thrashers got a major steal in the McCarthy trade and he might help the team fill in for the lost production provided by Modry, Savard and Bondra this coming season. In my opinion he has the best puck handling skills of Thrasher D corps.

Recently, I had a chance to ask Thrashers GM Don Waddell about McCarthy. He mentioned that he personally saw him play 5 times in his draft year. "In one game his team was on the road and they were clearly intimidated by the road crowd. McCarthy went out there and contributed to three goals for his team and was involved in several fights. I knew then that this was a guy I’d like to have on my team, unfortunately we didn’t have a pick when came up in the draft order." (note: Chicago took McCarthy with a 1st round pick over in the 1999 draft, 23rd overall that year. The Thrashers had the 1st and 30th picks that year.)

The power play will be crucial for this team all year. My one grip right now is that teams are dedicating one PK to blocking Kovalchuk’s shot from the point. When that happens the team needs to move the puck down low to make them pay for committing on guy to Ilya, right now they are not moving the puck effectively to take advantage. My other complaint is the Ilya keeps cheating in closer to the net—this allows the opposition PK to collapse in and create a tigher box which effectively eliminates any chance of a pass through the box. In my opinion Kovalchuk needs to stay out more toward the blueline—if a defender comes out to take him away that should open some space for passes through the interior of the PK box.
Finally, I’d like to personally thank Ed Belfour for spotting the Thrashers a 2-0 lead in tonight’s game. Last year the Thrashers watched their minor league goaltenders give up brutal goals like those two shots from the wing that Eddie the Eagle let in tonight, so we know how it feels Florida fans.