The Thrashers face an uphill battle to make the playoffs. That is their simple reality.
However, coach and players who have been in this position before say the journey is not impossible.
The Thrashers (27-28-11, 65 points) are 11th in the Eastern Conference and seven points behind Buffalo, the team that currently sits in the eighth and final playoff spot. With 16 games remaining, including Wednesday’s game against ninth place Carolina, there is little margin for error.
“We’ve lost so many games, we’re lucky to still be within reach,” goaltender Chris Mason said. “We need to be desperate. Every night should have a playoff mentality. If we don’t, we are going to be out. We need that desperation.”
Two seasons ago, Mason and St. Louis were 15th in the Western Conference at one point. Mason started the final 38 games, compiling a 24-8-6 record including five shutouts, and the Blues earned a playoff spot.
“Bottom line is we have to win,” said Mason, who also fought for his playoff life while in Nashville. “Every team has good players. … If you get outworked, you are not going to win.”
Last season Stanley Cup runner-up Philadelphia and Montreal finished with 88 points for the final two playoff spots in the East. The Thrashers would have to earn 23 of their remaining 32 points to finish with a similar mark – say an 11-4-1 finish.
Carolina (71 points) and Toronto (67 points) must be surpassed and red-hot New Jersey (64 points) held off down the stretch.
Newly acquired Radek Dvorak, a veteran of 15 NHL seasons, played for Edmonton in 2005-06 when the Oilers need a win, and some help, in their final two games to make the playoffs as the eighth seed. Two months later the Oilers were playing in the Stanley Cup finals.
“Every game is on the edge for us,” Dvorak said. “There is pressure to win. It’s good for the playoffs because you know how to play under the pressure.
“Here, we have to believe in each other. We have a great team, a lot of skill and character on this team. We have to focus on our game, every one of us, and go game by game, period by period, shift by shift. We are doing a lot of good things. If we continue, it will pay off.”
Several times this season, coach Craig Ramsay related the story of when he was an assistant in Ottawa in 1996-97. The Senators had to win their final three games, including one in Detroit, to make the playoffs. They finished as the seventh seed and took Buffalo to seven games. Ramsay said he also was in a similar situation down the stretch as an assistant in Boston.
There are similarities between those teams and his current squad, the coach said.
“We had a lot of players that put their hand up and said ‘I want to be that guy. I’ll take that shot,’” Ramsay said. “We had goaltenders that said ‘I’ll make that big save.’ We had people that were really committed to it.
“I can’t say that we haven’t had anything but that kind of commitment from our team. … They are trying and that’s what it takes to do it. Every player has to realize it’s not up to the other guy, it’s up to me. They have to continue to trust that what they are doing is correct. You don’t get 46 shots in one game without trying. The effort is there, but they have to understand each game that it isn’t up to the other guy.”
The Thrashers play 10 of their final 16 games on the road, where they have 29 points this season. Aiding the Thrashers is the fact they play eight games against teams near them in the standings – including two against Carolina and New Jersey and contests with Buffalo, Montreal, Boston and the New York Rangers.