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Home Opener: A Little Excitement

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The crowd was loud and ready to go crazy but as is often the case, the team raising the banner seemed to come out flat and took a while to get going. I thought about sticking around after the game to watch the AAHL Double A All-Star game on the Philips Arena ice but I decided to go home and watch my DVR recording to see what went wrong. So after my observations after watching the home opener twice.

The team REALLY struggled to clear the puck out of their own zone at times. So as I watched the game a second time I made note of who was on the ice during the eight occasions where the Thrashers were running around in their own zone. Here is who was on the ice for these breakdown moments.

5/8 Todd White
5/8 Brett Sterling
4/8 Pascal Dupuis
3/8 Bryan Little
3/8 Eric Perrin
3/8 Ilya Kovalchuk
1/8 Jim Slater

In those eight moments the wings in particular did a poor job of positioning on the ice in their own zone. Sterling and White struggled the most. Note that the Hossa-Holik-Kozlov line did not get stuck back in their own end, nor did the fourth line (when they were out there).

4/8 McCarthy
3/8 Exelby
3/8 Zhitnik
2/8 Klee
2/8 Havelid
2/8 Enstrom

McCarthy was on the ice for half of the running around episodes. That's not good considering how little ice time he receives. Perhaps the coaching staff will sit him and give Popovic a look on Saturday.

The Good
The power play looks immensely better than last year. Let me count the ways: 1) better puck movement; 2) greater willingness to shoot; 3) better decision making. Enstrom in particular fired three or four one-timers from the point and all of them were on target. The team did a great job of getting pucks on net, but they were unable to cash in on rebounds with the man advantage. I like the fact that there are now quality power play forward units. Each unit knows they need to work hard and get a quality chance because they will have to come off the ice soon. Last year the #1 unit seemed to have no urgency.

Bryan Little gave the team a spark and was promoted to the 2nd line. His goal was the product of a good decision to fill the slot as Kovalchuk drove wide and thew a one-handed passs to Little, who had the presence of mind to flip the rebound chance back toward the net even though he was below the goal line when he released it.

Ilya Kovalchuk played very hard and also showed further improvement in his defense. I didn't notice this live, but while looking at the game tape I saw that it was Kovalchuk hustling back at top speed on a busted line change (Sterling couldn't handle a hot pass in the neutral zone leading to a turnover). Kovalchuk dives face first so he can extend his stick to take away the passing lane between two Washington skates. That was not something we would have seen out of him a couple of years ago.

Eric Perrin also played a strong game using his speed. On the PK he drove down the ice fired the puck and got an offensive zone face off.

Tobias Enstrom handled the hits just fine and his positioning was very strong all game. He played with great poise and didn't look the least bit nervous. I was very glad to see that Zhitnik and Enstrom were out to quarterback every power play as they handle the puck very well.

The Thrashers had VERY few offsides considering it was the first game of the season. Eliminating little mental mistakes like that is a positive sign.

The Bad
Way too much screening of our goaltenders. Kari needs to remind them that he can stop the puck and they need to get out of his field of vision at times. Every goal he gave up he was being screened by his own team.

Both Brett Sterling and Todd White did not play well. Sterling had over twenty friends and family there at the game and he just never looked comfortable. Brett is also switching from one wing to the other and he may need more time to get into a groove on the opposite side.

Jim Slater was working hard, but no NHL team can afford to have a 4th line checker put them short a man for four minutes. His second penalty was particularly egregious since he coughed up the puck and then hooked the man who took it from him. He was all the way up at the offensive blue line and there was no reason to take a dumb penalty that far from your own end. If I were in charge Slater would sit and Thorburn would get a chance to show what he can do in Tampa.

Kari Lehtonen was decent, but didn't Nylander score a goal in the playoffs that looked just like the 1st one last night where he swung out from behind the net and fired quickly?

Garnett Exelby went for the big hit behind the net but his partner Ken Klee was already taking the same man. All the forwards collapsed down low to cover for the missing defensemen and that left Erskine wide open to score the 2nd goal with a slapper. Exelby also pushed a Washington player into Lehtonen which was dumb because he could have injured his netminder or at the very least put Kari in a bad position where he couldn't have stopped a shot on goal.

Game Productuion
Two thumbs up on the new pre-game video intro, I like the colors, the design and all the motion. I liked the head shots where the players look like they are yelling. I will not get tired of this one so quickly. Someone up in the booth slipped up during the player introductions and put up the graphic for Lehtonen when Boulton skated onto the ice--ha!

Where was our GM during the introductions and banner raising? I assume there was some VIP schmooze event backstage with Bettman and Waddell, but you'd think he come out onto the ice for the banner going up after all those other seasons of futility.

I liked the fact that they played O Fortuna! for the banner raising. That song was the music for my favorite Thrasher game intro several seasons ago (I especially liked the part in old intro where Ray Ferraro wiped his brow--it seemed to capture all the effort the players must put forth in the NHL). I'm also really glad the flaming bird head did not ignite the banner--that would have been some bad press right there. Having the Thrashers logo at the bottom of the banner to provide a V-shape was a nice touch.

While I am on the topic of game production let me make note of one thing I REALLY HATE about Thrashers games--the stupid spotlights under the scoreboard that repeatedly blind paying patrons in the stands who are trying to watch the scoreboard. I'm really surprised that no sponsor has asked the team why the regularly blind people who are watching their advertisements on the scoreboard. I have no idea why they think it is a great idea to do this. Look if you want to create a party atmosphere turn on the mirrored disco ball or something. Somehow I doubt that a crowd of folks between 20-50 years old with above average disposable income came to a Thrashers game to have red, yellow and blue spotlights directed at their eyeballs. I know that is not why I come to the games and I find it a real annoyance.

Lastly, I'm happy to report that the pasta is as good as ever, although I miss catting with the chef while he makes it for you like in the old days.

I was in ill humor at the end of the game but after watching the tape I'm not so upset. It is a long season. But they can't take too long to get things going, that wicked road trip is on the horizon and a quality Ottawa team is here next Wednesday.