If the hockey gods were just, the Atlanta Thrashers would have won last night. With their backs against the wall the team put forth one of their best efforts of the entire season. In my previous post, I questioned whether this team could adjust--and last night I watched them adjust:
- They released their shots MUCH more quickly.
- The recognized that the opposing goalie was allowing rebounds on nearly every shot and they threw pucks at the net.
- They were patient and made D-to-D passes in their own zone until they could set up a proper breakout.
- They managed to get through the neutral zone consistently against a good defensive team.
- Their goalie played well and gave them a chance to win.
- They battled hard for pucks along the wall and for rebounds in front of the net.
- They were unselfish with the puck and moved it to the open man.
If life was fair they would have exited that game with 2 points, but life is not always fair. Many times during this season the Thrashers only played hard in the 3rd period and came away with points. Last night they played hard for three periods and ended up with nothing to show for it. If the team played with that level of intensity all the time they would not be a desperate position.
Instead, the Predators scored a power play goal off of a nice play and they got a gift goal courtesy of a mistake by Mark Popovic. After the game he said it bounced on him. It might have, but he simply has to bear down and limit the damage in that situation. He could have at least kicked or pushed the puck out of danger. At worst, Popovic could have probably saved a goal by hooking or tripping the attacking Predator player. Taking a penalty would have decreased the Predators chances of getting a goal from 30-40% (penalty shot success rate) to 22% (power play percentage).
Would Schubert have made the same mistake? Would Kulda have handled it better? There is no way to know the answer to that question. It would be grossly unfair to say the Thrashers blew their playoff chances because of a single bad play. The Thrashers were in this precarious position because of their free fall back in December and their weak effort in the two games prior. If you're going to point fingers there are plenty of scapegoats to go around.
The thing that frustrates me the most is that the team played so hard and came up so empty. Last night was easily one of the five most entertaining games of the season. My heart was in my throat the whole night. They stormed all around the net and just couldn't catch a break. At one point Antropov carried the puck behind the net and Ellis came totally out of the net. All Nik needed to do was loft the puck off the body of the Thrasher standing in the crease and it would have deflected into the yawning net--that would have tied the game up.
This was the closest thing to playoff intensity we've seen at Philips Arena in a long time. But this is March and there are no moral victories anymore. It is crunch time and you either win those crucial points or you don't. There are no gold stars for good effort. Here's what I believe: if the Thrashers played as hard as they did last night, they would make the playoffs. But I have no reason to think they can put forward that effort level on a consistent basis after watching them stumble against Tampa and Carolina this week.
So what would it take? I think 89 points will probably be enough to get into the post-season. The Thrashers April schedule is brutal I don't expect them to do much better than 2-2-1 next month. That means the Thrashers need to go 9-3 in the remaining games in March. That's a .750 Winning Percentage the rest of the month. They need to win 3 games for every 1 they lose in regulation. To do that would require a very high effort level every night the rest of the way, and honestly I just can't see this roster sustaining that for the next 12 games.
The only other path to the post-season requires that they just get lucky. They need Boston to fall apart with Marc Savard sidelined with a concussion. They need Montreal to succumb to the intense pressure that comes with playing in that particular market. They need the Rangers to stumble. But such a scenario is highly improbable--three teams all struggling with the playoffs on the line? I'm not holding my breath for that to happen.
But this particular string has not yet been played out completely. There is still a small chance for success. I'll be there on Twitter living and dying with every big play on Thursday night. I must admit that it was been almost intoxicating being in the playoff hunt again. Playing meaningful games in March has reminded me just how exhilarating and exasperating it can be to watch hockey on the edge of your seat with your hands clenched from sheer tension. I don't need any finger nail clippers these days. I don't want this ride to stop...but it will if this team fails to win both of the next two games. It is do or die time.