If you have watched almost any Atlanta Thrashers game this season you have probably witnessed this trend--a first period where they look passive, a better 2nd period and a great 3rd period where they desperately seek to rally. This pattern has obviously begun to frustrate Coach John Anderson who would prefer a 60 minute effort.
Which is the real Thrashers team?
Are the Thrashers being lazy in the 1st period, or are they really playing over their heads in the 3rd while the opposition goes into a defensive shell with the lead? Perhaps the Thrashers are giving the proverbial 120% in the 3rd and they are simply incapable of playing at that level for an entire game. What I do know is that the Thrashers are 7-0-0 when scoring first and just 3-7-3 when the opposition scores first. That tells me that relying on a furious 3rd period is not a sustainable strategy in the long run.
Is this an unusual problem?
I suspect that if you did a survey of fans of all 30 NHL teams, we would discover that MOST NHL clubs struggle to put forth a consistent effort night after night. My guess is that MOST teams have bad periods. A few years ago the Thrashers seemed to always have bad 2nd periods, now it is mostly bad 1st periods. In the grand scheme of things, I'd rather have a great 3rd period than great 1st periods only to fade late in the game.
Are teams taking the Thrashers more seriously now?
When you're a bottom team in the standings, the opposition rolls into town, throws out the backup goaltender, and sometimes doesn't give a full effort. In my opinion that has begun to change. This last weekend, I thought that both Pittsburgh and Tampa played very hard and very well in our building. After the game the Penguins Coach said that it was probably their best 40 minutes of the season in periods 1 and 2. I also thought Tampa's defense was outstanding and their passing was crisp early on.
Is a problem with the lines or chemistry?
Coach Anderson has shown great patience with line combinations most of the season. In contrast, Bob Hartley would have changed things up multiple times by now. I suspect that Anderson's patience with the lines goes back to his time as an offensive player in the NHL--he probably preferred having consistent linemates. It looks like Anderson has chosen to shake things up going with totally new lines late in the game versus Tampa and then keeping them in practice.
Is it a function of youth or inexperience?
Veteran clubs don't always play hard every period, but they often play just hard enough to win. The Thrashers have quite a few key players who are still quite young. It is logically possible that the young guys haven't learned the trick of getting themselves up on a consistent basis. Now, I throw this out as a point of discussion, but I can't say that I believe this to be the answer. When I look at this team, the guys who make things happen every night (Ilya Kovalchuk, Zach Bogosian, Tobias Enstrom, Ondrej Pavelec) are all among the younger players on this squad. Players that have struggled at times (Kozlov, Little, Hainsey, Reasoner) are a mixture of old and young guys.
Is it a function of emotion?
When the Thrashers are playing well, they skate with great passion and energy. When that passion isn't there, they can look rather lethargic. To me, the critical thing to watch is their passing and decision making. If they are making inaccurate passes or bad-idea passes, then I know they are off their game mentally. Because they run an uptempo offensive-style of game, those bad passes lead to turnovers and quick counterattacks by the opposing team. The Thrashers don't play a boring trapping style, and for the team to have success they all have to play with energy and drive, otherwise it is an easy counter-punch for the opponent. I don't know what they have to do to get themselves up for a game (you would think facing the Stanley Cup Champions would do it), but right now it is simply insufficient. (Maybe they need that kid who does the Herb Brooks speech to give them a pre-game pep talk?) Given their system, they better be mentally sharp and play with determination and passion to make it work.