Do The Thrashers Have Large Talons?

Wednesday, January 31, 2007

Putting the Power back into the Power Play

Way back in the first days of the Thrasher franchise Don Waddell told us that immediately after games he and Curt Fraser would go into a room so that Fraser could cool down a bit, otherwise he would likely rip into them and say things would completely alienate the players. I felt a lot like Fraser after the last minute loss to Philadelphia. I went home steaming mad and really wanted to just let rip with some choice comments. For whatever reason the wireless network at my house was all cranky and I didn't post anything before leaving to go play rec hockey.

After working out some of my frustration out by playing the sport I love, I calmed done and put my analyst hat back on and realized that the Thrashers had actually played a rather strong game--especially at even strength. They nearly out shot the Flyers 2 to 1 and they greatly out chanced them. The game turned on two factors: an outstanding performance by Nittymaki in net (even better than the recent Huet show) and the ineptness of Atlanta's power play.

So I started writing some comments about the Thrashers power play but I didn't finish them before Tuesday's game versus the Devils. The funny thing is that virtually everything I was going to critique, the Thrashers fixed (or at least improved) on Tuesday night. Here's my list of what has been ailing the team.

1) Too much standing around, especially on the 5-on-3's. When offensive players are stationary it makes things very easy for the opposition penalty killers. This is true in bantam hockey, rec hockey and NHL hockey. Movement opens lanes and/or causes the PK unit to make coverage mistakes.

2) Too much passing and hoping for the perfect play to develop. Sometimes you need to just put the puck on net and crash for rebounds because you have a numerical advantage. Last year when Detroit's power play was tops in the league I was surprised to see just how quickly they put the puck on net during their PP. The Wings have many gifted passers but they seldom passed it more than 3-4 times before someone just let one rip and everybody attacked the slot area looking for rebound chances.

3) Players have to shoot even if the opportunity isn't just perfect. Kozlov in particular has been guilty of never shooting and opposition PKers don't need to defend him. Kovalchuk needs to just put the puck on the net when he gets a pass even if it means taking a wrister instead of a slapper. When he doesn't get a perfect pass he dishes it back to the other defenseman and waits for a 2nd attempt, but by then everyone in the building knows what is coming and his shot rarely gets through on net.

Well all of these things that I was concerned about Atlanta corrected in the New Jersey game. I hope that the player movement, quick shots and willingness to crash the slot continue into the future. I don't understand why we had to 0-16 on the power play before these changes were made, but I like the end result. The coaching staff will need to be more pro-active when we get into the playoffs.

The game versus the Devils was simply terrific. Someone on the post-game show said it was one of the most entertaining games all year in Atlanta and I have to agree. 80 total shots, 8 total goals, some good hits, some good saves and some great back checking.

Glen Metropolit's goal in particular was a thing of beauty and Kovalchuk's kid-in-at-Christmas reaction was also great to see. Kozlov's shootout goal was one of the more dramatic. "Dominate" is a word that is frequently overused in sports, but right now Kozlov really is able to dominate NHL goaltenders and it is a thing to behold. I thought that the Thrashers passed the puck as well as they have all season. They seemed very focused and in control for most of the contest. I'm not a big Sutton fan but he looked OK in live action.

Tuesday, January 30, 2007

Sterling shines in AHL All-Star Game

Thrasher prospect Brett Sterling wins the AHL All-Star game MVP.

I have to say I'm a big fan of Sterling. I watched him play last spring out as Colorado College took on Alaska Anchorage. I also watched him play the year before that in the NCAA regional playoffs as his CC Tigers beat my team the Michigan Wolverines in the regional final.

After the NCAA game some friends and I went to a comedy club across the street from Van Andel Arena (Grand Rapids, MI) and Sterling walked into the building with some teammates. I was shocked by how short he is in street clothes. But the new NHL increases the chances that a guy like him can make it to the NHL.

Sterling also looked good at the Thrashers NHL camp this fall. I ended up buying his training camp jersey at the team's equipment sale because I like his chances of making the big squad some day. Sterling followed up a good NHL camp with a blazing start in the AHL by scoring goals at a torrid pace for the Wolves. Perhaps if Slava Kozlov departs as a free agent this summer a guy like Sterling might get a change to make the team as a scoring line winger.

Monday, January 29, 2007

Where there's Smoke, there's...a Trade?

Thrasher fans it certainly appears that Atlanta and Chicago are in the midst of some trade talks. Atlanta had a scout at a recent Blackhawk game and then yesterday Chicago had two representatives including GM Tallon. Given our needs at center and the Hawks roster I presume that it is Brian Smolinski who is the object of the Thrashers desire. "Smoke" is in the final year of his modest contract and certainly would not bust the budget.

Smolinski is 35 and hails from northern Ohio just south of where I grew up. His age is a bit of concern, I don't know how much he has left in the tank. Before being traded to Chicago this summer Smolinski was the 2nd line center for the talented Ottawa Senators. In his last two full seasons with Ottawa he managed to put up 46 and 48 points which is decent for a 2nd line center. He is on pace for the same point totals this year in Chicago but is playing on their top line at times because of all their injury problems. His 29 points so far this season is more than any center on the Thrashers roster (Glen Metropolit has 24). Another "plus" for Smolinski is his plus/minus. He put up an outstanding +20 two years ago in Ottawa and has managed a +4 for a weak Blackhawks squad this year.

This is the big question: Is Brian Smolinski the solution for our top line and our power play problems? Well I looked at his three most recent years. His last two seasons in Ottawa he did not receive a lot of power play ice time. He appears to be have been on their 2nd PP unit from what I can gather. Now Ottawa is blessed with a ton of talent so is no shame playing on their second unit, but it does mean that among their forwards the coaching staff considered him their 5th or 6th best PP forward. Surprisingly his PP ice time in Chicago has not much higher. This might be explained in part by a dearth of PP opportunities for a lowly Hawks team. His efficiency has also slipped with Chicago but then again he hasn't been playing with the most skilled teammates there.

Age Season Team PP TOI by Game PP Points Minutes between PP Points
35 06-07 CHI 3:09 8 22.9
34 05-06 OTT 3:18 16 16.7
32 03-04 OTT 2:30 11 15.6

Is he the answer? It is hard to tell. He would certainly get more Power Play minutes here and he has experience playing some talented wingers in Ottawa. He's no Peter Forsberg (but then again I didn't think Peter Forsberg looked like his old self on Sunday either), but he would appear to be better than any current center on the Atlanta roster. If he bumps Niko Kapanen to the bench I would be thrilled by that development.

Sunday, January 28, 2007

Bobby Clarke's Revenge

Bobbly Clarke has been out of hockey for several months and yet his decisions continue to have repercussions. It was Clarke you may remember who helped to escalate salaries under the old CBA by signing Tampa Bay restricted free agent Chris Gratton to a high salary. Tampa Bay was in a tight spot and ended up matching the offer but then trading the player to Philly so that they would at least receive something in return. Bobby Clarke made a mistake as Gratton never achieved what Clarke expected and he dealt him away after less than two years on in Philadelphia.

Last summer Clarke repeated this pattern, only this time he stuck it to the Vancouver Canuks by signing restricted free agent Ryan Kesler to an offer sheet that pays more than the current market price for a player of Kesler's skill. The Canuks were put in the position of either overpaying Kesler or losing him for nothing to Philadelphia--and they matched the offer.

Well yesterday the forecaster had this update on Kesler's season: "The Canuks recieved a major blow on Friday when it was discovered that two-way center Ryan Kesler will undergo surgery to correct a hip problem next week. The procedure will likely keep the 22-year-old Kesler sidelined for the next 3-4 months."

So here we are months later and the Vancouver Canuks are fighting for a playoff berth out west, but their young centermen is hurt AND he is overpaid eating up cap space until they are granted a long term injury credit.

Saturday, January 27, 2007

Blogger Night in Review

First, I'd like to thank the Atlanta Thrashers organization and Ben Wright in particular for hosting Thrasher bloggers last evening. I thoroughly enjoyed the experience and I feel that I gained some valuable knowledge about the team and the players from it. In my live blog entry I focused on the game, but in today's post I thought I would discuss some of the behind the scenes stuff we experienced that evening.

After we arrived at the arena we were given a tour of both the lower reaches of the building and the press area at the top building. I have attended the Meet the Team and Town hall Meeting events with Don Waddell in the past so I had already seen the players’ locker room and the Hawks practice court beneath the concourses. I was also one of those fortunate enough to win one of the Volvo leases last year and during that experience I was escorted around while I signed the necessary paperwork and then waited by the Zamboni entrance for the conclusion of the game.

It turned out that there were still several areas of Philips I had not yet visited. We had a chance to look at the exclusive bar that sits underneath the club seats. The bar is only open to people who have select club seats. I had heard about this location before and it is very nice looking, but a bit smaller than I expected. The bar area seated approximately 30-35 people and there were 3-4 large flat panel televisions above and behind the bar area. At either end of the bar were even more private rooms available for patrons.

When we rode the elevator upstairs a group got in our elevator on their way up to their box seats. All four of their party had their hands filled up with concessions. I didn't have the heart to tell him that most of the boxes have food provided inside them. Once we reached the top floor we walked through the massive press area, which has two levels. I asked them which team produces the largest press turnout and they said probably the Montreal Canadians because they have both French and English language media in that city. Last night I would estimate that press only used about 30% of the lower press row. It is very difficult to imagine the press box ever being filled unless this team reaches the Stanley Cup Finals (or perhaps at nest year's All-Star Game).

Also on that same floor are the GM's box, a box for the visiting GM, the radio and TV booths for both the home and road team, the official scoring folks, the video replay judge. One thing I found rather surprising is that most of these rooms have the door wide open. Strolling around you could see Kamal sitting in his chair or JP Delacamera preparing in the TV box. There is some security up there but I just assumed that they would keep the doors closed to prevent random noise from the hallway from reaching their mikes.

Ben Wright had warned us that we might miss the very end of the game because it takes time to travel from press row all the way to the basement for Hartley's post game press conference. However, once the game went to overtime we stayed to watch the conclusion and then made a hasty departure for the freight elevator. Inside the elevator were media folks such as Craig Custance of the AJC (who has been doing some good work since taking over the Thrashers beat), and Craig Cuthbert of NBC Sports who will be doing the play-by-play for Sunday's NBC broadcast. Cuthbert remarked about how exciting the Thrashers were to watch and that he was hoping for a good contest for NBC's broadcast.

Once we got down to the press conference area, I was amazed at how tiny the room is. There is a podium with nice team backdrop (which is what you see if you watch the press conferences on the Thrashers website). In front of the podium are about 10 chairs and then at an angle were another 8 chairs. They had us bloggers stand and sit in the angled chairs. We were also joined by one of the team owners and his friends and/or family. The reporters for the AJC, AP and local radio sat directly in front of the podium and Hartley strode to the podium. Hartley pauses looks over at us in the angled section and says "Wow, the second balcony today!" and then adds, "It is like church." Which I took to mean that is like church on a holiday when they open up the side sections to accommodate the larger turnout. Craig Custance asked 3-4 questions and Hartley gave his reply and then it was over just like that. If you watch it on the website you can hear everything that was said yourself.

After that we went to the players locker room which was deserted. Their hockey pants, shoulder pads and skates and gloves and helmets were there but no real live actual players. They explained to us that they were in the adjoining room where the showers and street clothes are located. Then a few players came out. Steve McCarthy was being interviewed by someone. Hossa went out in the hallway to talk to some (I'm guessing European press because they were not speaking English). Hnidy slipped up behind me to snap something out of his locker. Vigier came out briefly.

And that was it for the evening. It was an emotional game with the Hossa injury and then his return, the big lead and finally the OT winner. It was great to see some other aspects of the building and team. It was also nice to meet some fellow bloggers and put a face with a name.

Friday, January 26, 2007

Thrashers vs Islanders Live Blog

7:05 I'm up here in the press box watching warm ups far below. The Thrashers have located us in the upper section of the enormous press box. When you look down on the players you feel as though you are directly above the ice. I think the most surprising thing is how well you can see the puck even way up here on the ninth floor of the building. We are roughly eye level with the very top row in the 400s (I've sat there a fair number of times during seasons 1 and 2) but we are closer to the ice because we are the very top of the suites.

The best part about watching the game from this location is that you can see the spacing of the players on the ice very easily. It is not as difficult to pick out which players are out of position. That is the same reason I prefer to sit in the end zone seats during games.

We were advised to honor press box tradition and not cheer when the home scores but a few bloggers forget on the 1st goal of the game and let out some whoops and fist pumps. We were more respectable on the 2nd goal.

7:41 The game has started without much flair except for a redirect opportunity by Kovalchuk until Hnidy puts in another goal this season. Wow. Shane has had a real scoring explosion of late.

I promised a popcorn review, but it tastes the same as elsewhere in the building. The real surprise press row concession is the warm salty pretzels that kept in their little hot box. Tasty!

Kovalchuk puts away a nice pass from Rucchin. From up top you could see that Ilya was super wide open. There was a great chance he would covert if the puck could just reach him in time and Rucchin made sure that it did.

Goal 3: This is insane. Three goals in the first six minutes. Sim gets a NBA behind the back pass from Mellanby. Sim is so wide open and he places the puck top left hand corner. This gets DiPietro pulled and Thrasher scapegoat Mike Dunham is in net. This is one moment where I wish I was sitting back in my regular seats so I could chant "Dunham you suck!" (A chant I rarely join in because it seems stupid in the 1st period of a tie game.)

3-1 now as Shane Hnidy loses track of his (Trent Hunter) Lehtonen's back side and allows a uncontested point blank shot that Kari had no chance of stopping.

Great save by Kari after a very slow start by the Islanders. I wonder if they forgot when the All-Star break ended.

Random observations: I passed Bruce Levenson in the hallway up here. Saw Billy Jaffe downstairs in by the zambonis. Also saw Larry Simmons in the hallway and Kamal and JP Delacamera.

Some good action late here in the 1st period. Hossa doing his bulldozer move to the net and it nearly went it. Lehtonen makes a fine save at the other end to preserve the 3-1 lead. The next goal will decide if this becomes a contested hockey game or is on the way to a blowout.

Vigier with a golden opportunity late but he can't find the twine.

2nd Period.

Wow, talk about an emotional swing. Hossa gets hooked down on one of his drives to the net and spins out into the boards and injures his left knee. We have no idea how badly of course, but then on the ensuing power play the Islanders get a shorty to make it a competitive 3-2 game.

Exelby got away with one it. He knocks the net off while hitting an Islander player. He should have either gotten called for delay of game or an interference penalty since the player he hit didn't have the puck.

Thrashers look out of emotionally since the Hossa injury with NY getting the better of the play. The guys need to rally since there is still half a hockey game to play.

Kari has made a couple of big stops and received help from two posts so far this game.

3-3 Blake ties it as he uses V. Vishnevski to screen Lehtonen. This is like a faster replay of the Phoenix game with an injury throw in on top of it.

Video screen drops this bit of knowledge "Hossa was born the year that "10" starring Bo Derek was released.

Mellanby comes up empty on a glorious chance, but can't lift the puck into the top half of the net.

On a completely unrelated note, while sitting up here at the top of the arena I notice a large banner that reads "Widespread Panic" and has the number "15 sold out shows 1999-2006" which seems a bit odd . I know that they are from Atlanta, but how many bands have banners hanging up ijn arenas?

3rd period.
The emotion continues to swing back and forth as Hossa makes his return to the ice for the opening faceoff and then scores to put the Thrashers ahead 4-3. Furthermore, you can see that the energy is back in the arena. The fans are back into it and so are the players. Then the Thrashers get the rare 4-3 power play to be followed by a 5-4 power play as the Islander player gets a double minor.

But the Thrashers suffer a breakdown with the man advantage as New York gets a wide open back door goal on Kari because De Vries did not cover his man down low sufficiently. That makes two back door goals because of mistakes by Thrasher defensemen tonight. The drama continues as Atlanta remains on the power play...
...yet another broken Kovalchuk stick on the power play. Ugh!

Time winding down and Carolina has a big lead on Washington. Getting two points is very important to keep the division lead.

Edit: ....and Kovalchuk wins it in OT!
Unfortunately I couldn't post this in real time as we need to pack up our laptops so that we could head down for the post-game news conference by Coach Hartely which I'll discuss in my next post.

Thursday, January 25, 2007

Live Blogging from the Arena Friday

I'll be posting live during Friday's game from the arena press box as part of blogger night. You can look forward to comments about the game as well as an extensive review of the press box popcorn and soda selection. I hear that we may even get to attend Coach Hartley's post-game press conference in which case I'm looking forward to the sock blogger asking him about his necktie selections.

Wednesday, January 24, 2007

State of the NHL

The Thrashers are on break at the moment so I thought I would direct my attention to the State on the NHL after watching last night's State of the Union address.

There has been a recent spate of articles regarding the shrinking place of the NHL in the American sports world. I myself have long been skeptical of the "sky is falling" crowd who never seem to tire of proclaiming the doom of hockey. Nor am I someone who is obsessed with making the NHL equal in popularity with the other big pro sports leagues: MLB, NFL, NBA. I'm perfectly fine with hockey as a niche sport. If hockey became as popular as those other sports it would mean more demand for tickets, which would lead to higher prices and therefore I would see fewer NHL games live.

I've always said that I can live with hockey being a second tier sport as long 1) my local team has enough support to flourish 2) there is sufficient demand so that all the games are televised. That latter point has been a source of annoyance lately as the Thrashers have not had a local carrier for all their games this season, but my CenterIce package has filled the void so far.

Generally speaking I think the game on the ice is going very well. I like the crackdown on obstruction. It is great to see speed and skill come back to the fore. No longer do we see our talented hockey stars wrestled to the ice like some cattle at a small town rodeo. Like everyone I too am frustrated with the inconsistency of officiating from time to time (especially if referee Mick McGeough is calling the game).

I would still like to see more scoring and I favor further reductions on the size of the goalies’ catching glove and expanding the nets by a couple of inches on either side. I would also like to see the NHL adopt the point system used during the World Juniors (3 points regular win, 2 points OT/SO win, 1 point OT/SO loss) and eliminate the problem of some game being worth 3 points and others just 2. I like the shootout, I just think a shootout win shouldn't count the same as a regulation win.

But the fact that NHL local television ratings are down across the board is a cause for concern. If local ratings continue to drop it will make airing local NHL games less attractive and may reduce further the number of games which are televised. If that happens it is a major cause for concern for this particular fan.

The fact that local TV ratings seem to be declining in most markets suggests that it isn't being caused by problems with one particular team or in one particular market. Instead the systemic nature of this problem indicates a larger problem. Personally, I don't think the game itself is the problem. Most fans I talk to like the new rules. Some point to the decline of fighting, but fighting has been in a steep decline for many years now and it is hard to see that as an explanation.

My best guess is that people are watching less hockey because the NHL simply is receiving less exposure in the sports media. The league did not put out a product for an entire year and when it returned there was an upsurge in articles about the league and what would happen. In the first lockout season it appeared that the NHL had suffered little long term damage from the lost season. Fans game out in strong numbers and all appeared to be fine.

This years attendance is roughly equal to the previous season but there appear to be fewer eyeballs watching hockey games on television. This suggests to me that the core NHL fans who buy single game and season tickets have not changed their habits that much but more casual fans have. And I think that this shift in the habits of the casual fans is being caused by the decreased exposure the NHL is receiving in the sports media.

Here in Atlanta the team is in 1st place in their division and they have the highest winning percentage of the four pro sports franchises in town, yet the local sports talk radio will devote hours to a sagging Hawks basketball team. The Thrashers only get mentioned in the half hour news update or in passing as an example of a team that has turned things around "look at what the Thrashers have done, why can't the Hawks be like that?"

I realize that part of the problem locally is that the Thrashers have never made the playoffs and I hope that the city will sit up and pay more attention to this team come spring. Certainly the local NHL fans have been turning out in strong numbers after the team got off to a great start this fall.

But I really feel that the entire league is feeling the effects of 1) less coverage in the print press; 2) less coverage on ESPN SportsCenter; 3) reduced exposure of OLN/VS broadcast outlet. As much as I didn't like the way ESPN treated NHL hockey I think that the shift to OLN/VS has become an unmitigated disaster for the league. The production values are terrible on the new network. Many people simply don't get the channel. It is a crime that there is no nightly NHL highlights show available in the USA.

The decision to air games on Monday and Tuesday nights was not wise. Sports fans settle in to watch sports on Friday, Saturday and Sunday. If you are a casual sports fan there is no national NHL game being shown on television during that three day period. If you happen to watch SportsCenter during that three day period you will see very few NHL highlights. For all intends and purposes the NHL might as well be invisible during the weekend to many casual sports fans. I believe that this, more than anything else, is the cause for declining ratings. People who are not die-hard hockey fans need to have their interest peaked or need a reminder that there is a big game this weekend and they are not receiving those messages as much as in the past.

Friday, January 19, 2007

Garbage Goals

One of the most frustrating things about watching the Thrashers lately is the unwillingness of the players to simply fire the puck on net and crash the crease looking for rebounds to chip in. The Thrashers seem overly fixated at times with making the perfect pass which they hope will lead to the perfect shot and the perfect highlight goal.

I hate to break it to them but if you watch a lot of CenterIce you will see that a good many goals happen simply because a team puts the puck on net and applies pressure. Last night the Thrashers displayed a problem which has long plagued the franchise--all three forwards below the goal line cycling the puck and nobody available in the slot to receive a pass or take a one-time shot.

When the Thrashers have a 5 on 3 they simply must put the puck to the net and use their superior numbers to cash in any rebounds.

I will give Hartley credit for assembling a potentially great garbage goal line with Slater, Mellanby and Sim the last few games. I really like to watch this line and hope Coach keeps it together for a while.

Wednesday, January 17, 2007

Home Cooking

Last night the Thrashers kicked off a long stretch of games at home (8 of 9) with a solid win over the LA Kings. In my opinion this next group of games could have a huge effect on the rest of the season. Why? Because after this stretch at home the team heads out for brutal road trip in which we play nothing but playoff quality teams (COL, VAN, EDM, CGY, OTT, CAR). Honestly I expect the Thrashers to struggle on that road trip given the quality of the opposition.
Thus, it is imperative that this team stockpile points at home over this nine game section of the season. Why am I making a big deal about winning games at home? Well if you look around the Eastern Conference the normal home-ice advantage has been very weak this year. It a typical year the home has a significantly better record at home than away but this year the gap is much smaller than usual.

Personally, I think the Thrashers should aim to win 6 out of 9 at home (or 12 ponts in 9 games) we simply must beat weak teams like LAK and PHI (twice) which would give us 6 points right there. Then if we can win 3 of the games against MON, NYR NYI, NJ, NYI and BUF that gets us to 12 points. I'm going to guess that that we split the Islanders game and beat NJ and NYR, while we lose to MON, NYI and BUF.

Taking 12 points should help the Thrashers maintain their division lead before heading out of town. If they allow the lead to narrow during this home stand, they likely see it slip away on the western conference road trip and find themselves in a dogfight the rest of the way for playoff position. However, if they play well at home they can take a big step towards winning the division and locking up home ice in the first round.

Monday, January 15, 2007

All Star Voting Scandal

The MC79 blog has a fairly detailed expose of the scandal that has enveloped the All Star balloting. ( )

Rory supporters created bots that would repeatedly cast internet ballots for Rory Fitzpatrick. I have nothing against Rory, but he should only get the votes of people who are willing to take time out of their lives to bother voting themselves--votes generated by a computer program shouldn't count in my view.

This year all balloting was done via the internet and you had to fill out a complete ballot to cast your vote. So fans for Rory couldn't just log on and keep casting votes for him alone, they had to make selections for the 3 Eastern Forward positions, 2 Eastern Defensemen and 1 Eastern Goalie and so on.

Here is where things go awry. The NHL wanted to eliminate the influence of those bot generated votes for Rory, but instead of tossing all the bot ballots they appear to simply deleted the votes for Rory--AND COUNTED ALL THE BOT VOTES FOR THE OTHER POSITIONS!

How do we know that this happened? Well there are a huge number of missing votes from the West Defense position--which should not happen because you had to make a selection for every position in order to vote.

So it appears that the NHL has tossed out the bot votes for Rory but left all the other bot selections for the other All-Star positions. Talk about an injustice--why should those bot votes for Rory not count while bot votes for Hannan do count?

The precise impact of the bots on the other positions is hard to pin down, but it appears that SJS Defenseman Hannan and Hurricanes Center Brind'Amour were primary beneficaries because they saw very sudden and hard to explain spikes in the number of votes they received. It is possible that the bot voting reduced the chances of Hossa, Kovalchuk and Lehtonen from making the All-Star team if they were not on the list of bots. (Disclaimer: I have not tried to do any analysis of this question, but it may have had an effect.)

This whole thing has become a huge joke now. We can't be sure which (if any) starters owe their positions to bot voting or actual human NHL fans.

Friday, January 12, 2007

Why does this team keep blowing 3rd period leads?

That last three games versus PHO, WAS and MON the Thrashers entered the third period with a lead and then subsequently lost the game in overtime (twice) or regulation. So what exactly is going on here? I sat down with my trusty DVR and decided to watch the third period of each of these games today to see if anything jumped out at me. So today's post will seek to uncover the explanation for why the team is losing late in games.

Hypothesis #1: The team is sitting back too much.

I simply didn't see any evidence of this. The Thrashers generated some terrific goal scoring chances in the third period of each of these games. I didn't see them just dumping the puck from center ice like a team trying to sit on a lead.

Hypothesis #2 The power play is killing us.

There is some support for this view. The Thrashers had a power play for the last two minutes of the Washington game and generated some great chances but no goals. A goal there gets you two points a win. Then in overtime versus the Phoenix the Thrashers get another PP when the Coyotes clear the puck over the glass and again come up empty. Finally in the Montreal game the Thrashers get a man advantage with 6 minutes to go and can't find the back of the net.

Hypothesis #3 Bad goaltending.

In the Phoenix game Hedberg had no chance on the redirected goal that made it 4-3. The goal that made if 4-4 came off a rebound, but I can't fault Hedberg entirely on this one because he put the rebound to the opposite side of the ice--which is generally a good thing to do. The OT winner for Phoenix was a breakaway created by an absolutely terrible pinch by Ilya when Phoenix was in control of the puck--again more blame goes to the skaters in my opinion. The one goal that he really should get blamed for is the one early in the third that made it 4-2. Hedberg fired the puck around the glass directly to a Phoenix player, he rushes back to the crease but he isn't set in time for the Coyote shot from Nagy.

The other two games Lehtonen started. The goal that tied the WAS game was a power play goal that Ovechkin fired from the high slot on a 5-on-3 WAS power play. Hard to fault him for that one given the manpower situation and the quality of Ovechkin's shot. The OT winner was another odd man situation as Kovalchuk got caught up ice creating a 3-on-2 which a wide open Caps player cashed in from point blank range.

In the Montreal game Havelid was simply beaten leaving Latendresse wide open to score. Rucchin lost a faceoff which leads to a blast from the high slot--Kari had a clear view and should have stopped this one in my opinion. The third goal of the period came on the penalty kill as Holik went to the box and Havelid tried to block the pass from Koivu and missed leaving a wide open Montreal player on Kari's backdoor side.

Overall I'd put more of the blame on errors by the skaters than the netminders.

Hypothesis #4 Stupid Penalties

Atlanta's Penalty Killing is not very good right now so every penalty taken gives the other team a golden opportunity. In the Phoenix game Rucchin took a penalty that lead to a goal which made the game 4-3. In the Washington game the Slater, Holik and Vigier all took penalties, the last two produced a two man advantage for WAS that they converted. Exelby picked one up in OT for firing the puck over the glass but the Thrashers managed to kill that one off. In the Montreal game a Holik penalty lead to the goal that made it 4-2 late in the third and killed off any chance of a comeback.

Hypothesis #5 Mental Errors by Skaters.

I hinted at this in the goalie section, but Kovalchuk absolutely has killed us in the two overtime games. He made VERY poor decisions that produced both odd man breaks that led to both overtime goals. His decision to pinch against Phoenix was the most heinous since the Phoenix player had full possession of the puck and was looking to move it up the ice--I have no idea what Kovy thought he was going to accomplish.

Havelid made two coverage errors in the Monteal game that helped the other team put two into our net.

The tying goal by Phoenix was a series of mistakes by Thrashers. Exelby blasted the puck up the boards and Kovalchuk's man was able to hold the puck in at the blue line. After the puck came out to Ballard for a point shot, neither Kapanen nor de Vries covered Owen Nolan who put the rebound into the back of the net.

The good news is that it isn't just one thing that is hurting the team--there isn't some huge problem that is consistently killing this team the way goaltending did last year.. The bad news is that it isn't just one thing that is hurthing this team--which means that the Thrashers need to improve in a variety of areas. The Thrashers are making multiple mistakes which cumulatively are causing them to come up short over the last three games. Hopefully they will snap out of it against New Jersey tonight.

Friday, January 05, 2007

Stefan Screwup and USA got Robbed at WJC

Back when Patrick Stefan played for the Thrashers I once mocked his pathetic excuse for a shot by saying that Stefan only scores three ways:
1. Someone passes to him on the back-door side and he scores into a half empty net.
2. He fakes the goalie to the ice scoring into a half empty net.
3. He scores into an empty net.

Well last night Stefan proved that he couldn't even do the latter as he somehow muffed a EN chance about three feet from the goal line. The Oilers went the length of the ice and tied the game with 2 seconds left forcing OT. The Stars ended up getting the OT goal but Stefan's screwup gave rival EDM an extra point.

Former Thrashers Ray Ferraro was doing commentating for the Oilers and just ripped into Stefan saying he ought be ashamed of himself. I'm sure Ray felt the same way when he watched Stefan fail to finish his checks in Atlanta. Stefan may be the least physical checking line center I've every laid eyes on in the NHL.

So far Stefan has just 9 points in 28 games played and 3 of those 9 points came in his one game versus Atlanta. (As I said after the DAL-ATL game "If Stefan every played like for us, he never would have been traded.") That gives him just 6 points in 27 non-Atlanta games which puts him on pace for a 18 point season over 82 games played.

I'm watching the Bronze Medal WJC game right now and TSN just went over all the ways that the USA got robbed by the refs in the game versus Canada. They showed how the powerplay that led to the goal that tied the game was simply a hit that was called interference. Downie acked like he had just suffered a major injury and then jumped up and played on the power play (I'll bet if a USA player had done this we would be hearing about how he was disrespecting the game, etc.) Then when Jack Johnson was high sticked it should have resulted in a 5 minute major. Finally, in the OT the shooting order should have reversed after the first three intial shooters. So instead of USA playing catchup to Canada the pressure whould have been on Canada if the USA had scored. All togther a terrible performance by the ref crew in a crucial game at the WJC. I will say that to their credit TSN pointed out these things.

Thursday, January 04, 2007

Penalty Minutes Earned Updated Thru December

Now that I'm back in Atlanta for a few days I've had a moment to update the Thrashers Penalty Drawn statistics, which I have been tracking all season. I decided this time to present the information with separate tables for Forwards, Defensemen and Others because forwards have a much greater opportunity to earn power play opportunities for their team compared to defensemen who must take a penalty now and then to prevent a prime scoring chance from developing.

I have taped virtually every game and gone back to watch which Thrasher drew the penalty which gave the team a favorable change in the on ice manpower situation. Off-setting penalties have not been included in these tallies because they don't give an advantage to either team.

Among the forwards Jon Sim continues to shine as one of GM Don Waddell's better off season additions drawing a team-high 42 man-advantage minutes from the opposition with his gritty, speedy and irritating ways (I'm glad he plays for us!). Sim has played on a variety of lines this season but has remained very effective. Skilled players like Kozlov and Hossa have been strong all season in terms of drawing penalties and this month they were joined by Ilya Kovalchuk, who led the entire team with 16 man-advantage minutes earned in December. It is good to see that while Kovalchuk isn't scoring as much this month, he has contributed by putting his team on the power play. The checking line of Holik, Slater and Vigier has been strong this month as well cycling the puck down low and forcing the opposition to take penalties.

On defense, Hnidy and Havelid both had good months in terms of drawing man advantage minutes, which is hard to do given the position they play.

Man Advantage Minutes Earned


Player Oct. Nov. Dec. Season
Sim 16 16 10 42
Slater 15 16 10 41
Hossa 16 12 10 38
Kozlov 9 10 14 33
Holik 12 6 14 32
Kovalchuk 6 6 16 28
Vigier 4 8 8 20
Metropolit 2 6 8 16
Rucchin 14 0 2 16
Kapanen 4 6 4 14
Larsen 2 10 0 12
Boulton 0 2 4 6
Mellanby 0 6 0 6
Krog 0 0 4 4


Player Oct. Nov. Dec. Season
Hnidy 0 10 8 18
de Vries 6 6 4 16
Vishnevski 8 2 4 14
Havelid 4 2 8 14
Exelby 2 4 0 6
Sutton 2 4 0 6
McCarthy 2 2 0 4
Popovic 0 2 0 2
Coburn 0 0 0 0


Player Oct. Nov. Dec. Season
Bench 12 12 12 36
Lehtonen 0 2 4 6
Hedberg 0 2 2 4

A player can help his team by drawing penalties from the other team, but if that player also takes a lot of penalties then his net effect is greatly reduced. So I also keep track of net man-advantage minutes over the course of the season. For example, Holik and Kovalchuk both take penalties that wipe out the positive effect of the penalties committed against him.

While Jon Sim leads in total minutes drawn from the opposition, but when you look at net minutes we see that the seldom-penalized Slava Kozlov is at the top of the list with +25 minutes so far on the year. You can see why the Kovlov-Hossa combination is very troublesome for other teams because they can either score on you, or they can cause you to take a penalty when trying to contain them.

None of the defensemen (other than the seldom-used Popovic) has a net positive rating. Sutton is the worst of the group in terms of taking a lot of penalties. Hnidy has done well in terms of net minutes since replacing Sutton on the top pairing with Havelid.

Net Man-Advantage Minutes (Season)

Player Net Minutes
Kozlov +25
Sim +22
Hossa +16
Slater +7
Vigier +6
Metropolit +4
Rucchin +4
Boulton +2
Kovalchuk 0
Holik -2
Kapanen -2
Krog -2
Larsen -2
Mellanby -14


Player Net Minutes
Popovic +2
Hnidy -6
de Vries -8
Vishnevski -10
Coburn -10
Exelby -14
McCarthy -16
Havelid -16
Sutton -21


Player Net Minutes
Bench +12
Lehtonen +4
Hedberg +2

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