MONTREAL – Missing the playoffs is nothing new to the Atlanta Thrashers, but this year, an early vacation might be tougher to swallow.
Midway through the season, the Thrashers were seventh in the Eastern Conference with a 20-15-6 record. They looked like a team on the rise, with an influx of talent from the Stanley Cup-champion Chicago Blackhawks led by defenceman Dustin Byfuglien and forward Andrew Ladd to bolster their own clutch of young players.
They were scoring goals in bunches.
But then came the crash. And, although they are not yet officially eliminated, the playoffs look as distant as ever for a team that has reached the postseason only once in its 11-year existence. That was in 2007, when Atlanta was swept in the first round by the New York Rangers.
”It’s been tough,” defenceman Zach Bogosian said Tuesday as the 11th-place Thrashers prepared to face the Montreal Canadiens. ”I thought when we were getting a lot of wins early on we were getting a lot of bounces our way.
”When we went into overtime, we were finding ways to win. We haven’t been doing that on a consistent basis the last little bit. There’s no real way to pinpoint one thing. A lot goes into it. But we stopped finding ways to win.”
It started in late December and continued for two months. A 6-15-5 swoon from Dec. 21 to Feb. 23 all but sank any hope of stirring hockey interest in a team that plays before great swaths of empty seats and is up for sale.
First-year coach Craig Ramsay said injuries and a tough first-half schedule ground his team down.
”We got a lot of goals from a lot of people early in the season,” he said. ”We had talked about that, getting goals from all our lines and all our defencemen.
”We ran into a few injuries that put a kink in that plan. We went through one of the toughest schedules since I’ve been around and we got through it successfully, but the reality was that by the end of it, even though we were still playing our people they were pretty banged up. So we lost that little edge.
”At the start of the season, we were outshot a lot of games but our goalies kept us in and we scored. When we stopped scoring, it became quite a battle to compete every night. When you play players who are injured, it takes away that little half a step.”
The team has rebounded somewhat of late, going 7-5-2 since late February. But it would take a minor miracle to get past both 10th-place Toronto and ninth-place Carolina and catch Buffalo for the eighth and final playoff spot with less than two weeks left in the regular season.
”It isn’t fun when your franchise has only made it one time, but it motivates you a bit,” said Bogosian. ”You want to be that team that makes it.
”For a while there things were looking great and then we weren’t finding ways to win and that put us in the position we are in now.”
Thrashers general manager Rick Dudley was a seller at the trade deadline, shipping former Blackhawks Ben Eager to San Jose and Brent Sopel to Montreal, and sending Niklas Bergfors to Florida, Fred Modin to Calgary and Rich Peverley to Boston. The Bruins’ deal got back defenceman Mark Stuart and forward Blake Wheeler who they hope will become solid pieces for the future.
Wheeler has prospered with Atlanta, registering five goals and eight assists in his first 16 games. But he admits it was tough going from a Stanley Cup contender in Boston to a team on the brink of playoff elimination.
”Boston’s close, we were really close the last two years,” he said. ”They’ve got what it takes.
”They’re a team built for a long playoff run. It’s certainly going to be difficult if that happens—to have to watch them in the playoffs. But I have a lot of friends on that team and I’ll be cheering for them. When I was traded here, it was exciting. These guys are really close to making it over that hump. We have the makings of a really good team.”
Ramsay vowed to battle until the end and not rest key players just to keep them healthy for next season. And he wants to keep the accent on the offence.
He may have been a checking forward as a player for Buffalo a generation ago, but the Thrashers coach likes his team to go on the attack, even without its former scoring star Ilya Kovalchuk, who was traded to New Jersey last season.
It starts with defence, where Byfuglien and Tobias Enstrom are among the team scoring leaders, just behind Ladd. Bogosian and Ron Hainsey also can skate and he’s got Stuart and Johnny Oduya moving up into the play as well.
And they like getting pucks on net, as they did in firing 47 shots in a 5-4 shootout win over Ottawa on Sunday.
”We’ve had 40 shots numerous occasions in the last month or so,” added Ramsay. ”We’re looking more like the team we were at the start of the season. But we dug ourselves a hole.”