There is no lack of superlatives when the Thrashers discuss their next game.
A playoff berth hangs in the balance over their final 11 contests and none is bigger right now than Buffalo on Saturday. It’s “huge” and “the biggest game of the year by far.”
The Thrashers enter the game 10th in the Eastern Conference just four points behind the Sabres for the eighth and final playoff spot. A win – especially in regulation – would put the Thrashers back in the thick of the playoff race.
“I think we all understand it’s a huge game,” defenseman Mark Stuart said Friday. “That goes without being said. We can’t put so much pressure on ourselves where we are gripping our sticks [too tight] and not playing our game. Everyone in this room knows it’s huge – as does Buffalo. Basically we have to approach this as a playoff game. That’s the best thing we can do.”
The Thrashers have come a long way in a short time. That’s life in the NHL this time of year. Following Tuesday’s loss at New Jersey, the Thrashers were 12th in the conference based on tiebreakers and games in hand. They were looking up at New Jersey, Toronto and Carolina. However, a win over Philadelphia, the top team in the conference, and losses by Toronto and New Jersey Thursday have the Thrashers in a much-improved position. Their chances of making the playoffs, which appeared bleak just 48 hours earlier, are not out of reach.
“Everybody knows what’s at skate, where we are and what has to be accomplished,” coach Craig Ramsay said. “I think in some ways you see that show up as pressure out on the ice when guys force plays that aren’t there because they are trying to do to much. But what you have seen is a great response overall from the team as far as ‘Let’s find a way to win. Let’s find a way to get this done.’ We’ve been battling like crazy for quite awhile now. We should actually be more comfortable.”
The Thrashers (30-29-12, 72 points) are 4-1-1 in their past six games. Their race for the postseason will come against playoff-caliber opponents. Of the remaining 11 games (four at home), seven are against teams currently in playoff position. Two others, Carolina and Nashville, are one place out.
Ninth-place Carolina (74 points) hosted the New York Islanders and New Jersey (70 points) could catch the Thrashers with a win against Washington Friday.
“You can’t look back,” captain Andrew Ladd said. “You can get complacent. It’s more important to look forward and understand we need to keep this going.
“I think we’ve done a good job of focusing on what we are doing and getting prepared for our games. The good thing about this team is in big games we’ve played well all year. We seem to play better in those types of games.”
Saturday’s game will be the final meeting with the Sabres this season. Buffalo has won two of the three games, including Feb. 23 when the hosts scored three straight goals in a 4-1 win. Despite 41 shots on goaltender Ryan Miller, the Thrashers managed a single goal.
The importance of the game can not be understated, according to defenseman Dustin Byfuglien.
“This one is definitely the biggest game of the year for us,” the All-Star said. “It’s going to definitely show where we sit as a team, how we get up for big games and how we handle it.”
* Forward Radek Dvorak did not practice Friday. He traveled with the team to Buffalo and is expected to play.
* Prospect Carl Klingberg, a second-round pick in 2009, was assigned to AHL Chicago following the Swedish Elite League season.
* The Thrashers raised $24,325 from Thursday’s auction of green jerseys worn during pre-game warm-up. Rookie Alexander Burmistrov’s jersey fetched the highest price at $1,600. Byfuglien was the second highest at $1,500. Proceeds went to the Thrashers Foundation.