As the Atlanta Thrashers embark on a two game road trip which begins tonight in Toronto, it should be interesting to witness their response coming off a lack-luster 2-0 defeat at home last Saturday to Columbus.
To put it mildly, the Thrashers had more passengers Saturday night than one of those big Delta jets flying an international route. They were lulled to sleep by a Blue Jackets team that makes wallpaper look exciting. Ken Hitchcock, their head coach, would be an effective spokesperson for Sominex. But the bottom line is that the Jackets play their system to a T. They lock down teams defensively, pounce on turnovers, frustrate the heck out of them and win a lot of low scoring games. Plus, they now have the horses to provide the necessary offense in players like Rick Nash, Derrick Brassard and Kristian Huselius.
During "Thrashers Live" that followed our broadcast on Sportsouth, analyst Darren Eliot branded a succinct phrase that spelled out the home team's effort that night:
"You can have an off night, but you can't take the night off."
I challenge anyone to come up with a more succinct phrase describing the plight of the Thrashers on Saturday night and what has happened with this team periodically throughout the season.
Defenseman Garnet Exelby was once again front and center during the post-game media scrums, calling out the team like he did after the 6-1 loss at New Jersey earlier this month.
"We didn't come ready to play," he told the Atlanta Journal-Constitution. "I could sit here and give you excuses, but we've got to play with a lot more passion. We've got a lot of passengers right now and not everybody is pulling our weight, and it's becoming a lot more evident here, every passing game."
Passengers? Exelby is dead on. And the bus is filling up quickly.
Unfortunately, one of those passengers on Saturday night was LW Ilya Kovalchuk, the same player I praised on this blog just days before. At one point, he fanned on a shot from above the left circle, then slowly sulked to the bench on a change as the play went up the ice and into the Thrashers defensive zone.
Kovalchuk is the Thrashers best player. He is the face of the franchise that brings fans out of their seats regularly. He needs to lead. On Saturday night, he failed.
The margin of error for this team is razor thin. If hockey is the consummate team game, as Eliot has preached to me since 1999, then this team can ill-afford to have a single player take the night off.
Sometimes, road trips are the best tonic for a team struggling to string together wins. Trips to Toronto can often bring out the best in struggling teams since the spotlight of the hockey world will shine down on them tonight in the (self proclaimed) center of the hockey universe, not to mention family and friends who are often in attendance at such tilts. Wednesday's trip to Washington represents one of those four point swing games within the division against a Capitals team the Thrashers dominated on opening night. And if the team has shown a dominance in one statistical category this season, it's been their record against Southeast Division rivals, which stands at 4-0-2.
This team is fragile once again, but oh so close to ripping off another modest four or five game win streak. How else can you explain a team that's lost three in a row, yet won five of their last eight?
So how will the Thrashers react this week? Only they know the answer to that question.