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Thrashers Finally Finish in Chicago

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I'm back home after seeing three hockey games in three nights. The trip was a lot of fun and my teams won 2 out of 3 so that's not too bad. The games were generally enjoyable and I was able to take in the Windy City's attractions. It was also a pleasure to meet the father of one our prospects, hopefully I'll get to see him in Atlanta some day with his son in a Thrashers uniform.

Unfortunately, the demands of my day job and lack of internet access during waking hours prevented me from posting quickly. But since the Chicago game wasn't televised here are my observations.

The United Center

I mentioned previously that I was not a big fan of the United Center but I actually enjoyed this visit more than some previous ones. The upper deck seats are still very far from the ice but it was fun to hear the organ throughout the game and Blackhawk fans who were once obnoxious seemed to have been humbled a bit by all the losing over the last few years. I only received mild derision for wearing my Thrashers jersey in the stands during the game.

There were a surprising number of Atlanta jerseys in the stands but I'm guessing the vast majority where Chicago Wolves fans. The Wolves Fan Club was one of the featured guest groups of the night. Every person I encountered who was wearing a Thrashers jersey said that they were from Chicago not Atlanta. There a kid in an Adam Berkhoel jersey who held a sign up for Haydar during warm-ups-- he noticed it and gave the kid a puck and he was quite pleased.

The worst thing about the United Center was the staff. We arrived very early and asked the usher on the main concourse if we could sit down low to watch warm-ups. He responded with a confused monologue about how the team's "had already warmed up because of the 7:30 start" and he doubted that they were going to come back out. He eventually let us stick around in the "unlikely" event there was another warm-up (I thought people in Chicago were supposed to be more hockey knowledgeable?)

Then there was a woman at the escalator who had this bored-out-her-mind look. Someone joked "can we get a smile" and she just ignored everyone. My friend approached one of the merchandise counters and had this conversation:
"Do you want to buy something?"
It felt like had ended up in New York and not Chicago. The staff at Philips Arena are miles ahead of the United Center in terms of being fan friendly.

The Chicago version of the ice girls wear even less clothing on top than they do in Atlanta and the scoreboard featured a prominent shot of cleavage as they came off the ice. My guess is that the Blackhawks are not really aiming for the professional working woman in their marketing efforts.

There are no TVs on the upper concourse where fans can monitor the action or see how much time is left in the intermissions.

Intro Video
The video screen showed an enormous Indian head being stitched together interspersed with shots of statues of Hawks greats, still photos of past Hawks and the names of past Hawks (although I'm not sure Bob Probert ever did much in a Chicago uniform). They played Aaron Copeland's Fanfare for the Common Man at the start. Overall I give them a B+ for the intro video. After it was over the Blackhawks fan next to me (wearing a full Indian headdress) leaned over and said "See that? That's called tradition!" I said something like, "Well, let me tell you what the playoffs are like because you probably don't remember them." They moved down a few rows not long after that.

The Game: 1st Period
Things started off poorly as Holik took a penalty right away to put his team down a man. It turned out to be a theme of the night as he took two more penalties. For a guy who is paid a lot of money to provide leadership, he sure puts his team mates in a bad position. On the PK Klee got a clear that lead to a near breakaway for Ilya Kovalchuk.

Popovic was paired with Zhitnik and they played much better than the McCarthy-Zhitnik pairing had the previous couple of games. Personally, I think Popovic should get another game after his performance.

The team started with much more purpose and energy than they had in Nashville, although neither team brought much in the way of physical play. Todd White had a scoring chance. Hossa gave the puck away which led directly to a Chicago scoring chance.

Holik takes his 2nd penalty and the White losses the face and the Blackhawk centerman nearly scores on a shot from the faceoff dot, but Hedberg is sharp and he makes the save. On the same PK Hossa sets up for a short handed chance but White fails to even get a shot away.

Then the Thrashers get a power play as Kane goes to the box, Kovalchuk gets into a good spot but fans on the shot. Little is tripped and the Thrashers go up 5>3. Kovalchuk fires a point shot that is saved--he goes and changes sticks before the next faceoff--and then rips another slapper which is tipped by Kozlov for a goal 1-0 Thrashers!! (I jump up and clap half expecting to be showered in popcorn or beer but nothing happens.)

Now it is a 5>4 power play and Slava is wide open on the backdoor but he fails to redirect the cross ice pass into the half empty net. Then Enstrom is caught behind the play and Chicago gets a 2>1 short-handed rush up ice against Zhitnik but Hedberg is equal to the task.

The Thrashers checking line has a great shift where they cycle and hit which ends with Boulton having a golden opportunity to score but he too fails to get the shot on net. At this point I'm starting to get concerned because the team has repeatedly failed to get shots away in good scoring opportunities.

Ken Klee gets away with a blatant interference in his own end which the referees do not call. Later Hossa takes a high stick to the upper chest/chin region and there is no call.

Then Hedberg makes a save but has absolutely no idea where the rebound went to and Holik (I think) comes to his rescue and moves the loose puck away from the net.

The Thrashers checking line again applies the pressure and this time a hit jars loose a puck which is dished across the offensive zone to Larsen who is in a good position but misses the net. This pattern repeats one last time in the first as Holik whiffs on a potential scoring chance as well.

Save Of The Night: A kid comes walks up the stairs about 6 feet from me holding a drink and basket of fries. He slips and falls--landing on his chest--but he manages to keep the food items upright loosing just 3 French Fries. Impressive.

The Game: 2nd Period
The Thrashers had the better scoring chances in the 1st (although they missed the net on many of them) and the Blackhawks play better in the 2nd period. They are aided by a Hedberg penalty that gives them a power play. This time they move the puck efficiently across the top of the zone and the defenseman gets it to Kane who unleashes a quick shot but one that Hedberg should have had in my opinion. It beat him mid level glove side. This is one where the PK did exactly what they were supposed to do and kept the shots toward the outside. Game is tied 1-1.

Hossa looks like he is about to get a breakaway and he tries to step around the last Chicago defender who just stands him up with a nice clean check to snuff out the chance.

Havelid and Zhitnik are out together and it is scary as they both back up too much and give the Chicago forwards way too much room to maneuver.

Kovalchuk gets a couple of rushes and the Chicago defenders give him the outside lane which he takes but is unable to set up a linemate for a shot. I write "Kovy needs to shoot and try to force his way into the slot area."

Holik is in the box again but the penalty killing is very good and really limits their chances. The Chicago crowd gets anxious because of the lack of chances and shots.

The Game: 3rd period

The contest is tied 1-1 but the Blackhawks lead in the shots 20-13 which is a bit deceptive since the Thrashers failed to get shots during some of their most promising scoring chances.

The Thrashers get some early chances but Little is unable to finish and Perrin centers to a vacant slot area and late he mishandled the puck on a promising looking play.

2-1 Thrashers as Kovalchuk gets a great pass from Haydar that springs him up the right boards. He cuts to the net and finishes vintage Kovalchuk style. Huge relief as the team has the lead again.

3-1 Thrashers. A few minutes later Kovalchuk steals the Chicago attempt to clear their zone and quickly sends the puck to the front of the net where Slava Kozlov is all alone by himself. Kozlov catches the puck makes a couple of fakes and scores it five-hole. He had a ton of time and used all of it to gain the advantage. Big momentum shift

The young Hawks look a bit flustered but things heat up as Slater tries to hit someone (I didn't see who) and has his knee out a bit (I didn't see it but someone else in my row did). This leads directly to a scrum in which Thorburn and Ruutu start going at and Thorburn tosses him to the ice and lands some more punches. When Ruutu tries to get up off the ice Thorburn pushes him down again just for good measure. Once they start explaining the calls to Holik, Bobby says something and McCreary gives him the dramatic 10 minute misconduct. Both Holik and Thorburn are effectively done for the game. When all is said and done the penalties are off setting.

Hossa gets a vintage drive to the net and I was sure he was going to cash this one in, but Lalime kept it out of the net somehow. The Thrashers then get a powerplay which produces two hard point shots that turn into rebounds but neither bounces in the right direction for the Thrashers to turn them into goals. Haydar has a bad giveaway, but the defense is able to keep Kane to the outside and chance is snuffed out.

Then Chicago gets a power play but they look a bit out of sorts. They accidently clear it the length of the ice. Exelby takes a very stupid penalty by making an overhand slash on the stick of Blackhawk who is carrying the puck, putting the opposition back up by a man.

3-2 The Blackhawks get a goal as a Chicago player falls on top of Hedberg who is unable to make a play on a shot from the blueline. He is really pissed and I think he had every right to be. There should have been a goalie interference call. Hedberg's tosses his stick, helmet and gloves which earns him an two minute minor.

It is nail biting time as the Thrashers have a 1 goal lead with just 1:09 left in the game. CAN THEY HANG ON????? Hedberg makes a quality save. The Hawks pull there goalie for a 6>4 skater advantage. Another Hedberg save. Just 46 seconds left. One more save and then Havelid gets the clear to relieve the pressure. An aggressive forechecking Thrasher causes the Blackhawks to pass it around in their own end burning up valuable seconds. Finally the clock ticks down--Thrashers win to go 2-1 on the first three games of the road trip.

Three Stars: 1 Kovalchuk, 2 Kane, 3 Hedberg

The Thrashers were shut out in Nashville and began the game by failing to get the puck on net despite some great looking opportunities. They were able to break out and convert some of these chances as the game went along. Ilya Kovalchuk had a hand in each goal, giving his goaltender a lead he could work with.

The other story of the game was the penalty killing. Technically they gave up two power play goals but the first one was Hedberg's fault and the second was because Hedberg had a Blackhawk player on top of him. All night long the PK unit kept the Blackhawks to the outside and really protected the slot and crease area. If they can keep this up the rest of the road trip they should put up some good PK stats.