Looking back over the hockey season that has just come to a close, there is one game that sticks out in my mind the most…the game that I think can be looked back upon as the one that turned the entire 2008-09 Thrashers season from a complete and total devastating disaster, to one that has left us facing the 6-month long off-season more hopeful than disgusted.
It was Friday night January 16th and the Toronto Maple Leafs were in town. Coming into the game the Thrashers were 7-17-3 in their previous 27 and had not won consecutive games since the 5-game win streak that ended in mid-November. They were fresh off a 3-2 loss to Ottawa two nights prior and their record at the time was an abysmal 14-25-5 for 33 points…a pace that, if continued, would have seen Atlanta finish around the 61 point mark. That’s bad…New York Islanders kind of bad.
They were the Titanic and the NHL 2008-09 season was their North Atlantic.
It was Ilya Kovalchuk’s second game since being named team captain. It was also the second game that this new, unheard-of guy named Rich Peverley was to play in a Thrashers uniform. Although few, if any, questioned the selection of Kovy to wear the “C”…many were still scratching their heads over the waiver-wire pick up of the former Nashville Predator.
But hey…it got Jason Williams out of the lineup, right?
As you’ll recall, things started out poorly for the home team, falling behind 3-0 after the first period…Headberg having allowed the three goals on but eight shots. It looked as though this was going to be yet another lopsided loss in what was turning out to be a miserable season that was becoming painful to watch.
That is…until the players wearing Thrasher Blue came charging out of the tunnel for the second period.
The first intermission of that game was the time, as you may remember, that the Thrashers players seemed to have been abducted from the locker room by alien beings who then inhabited their bodily forms for the remainder of the game. I mean, that had to be explanation, right? Those guys could not have been our Thrashers, could they? The were passing well… playing hard, tough, smart defense…and throwing there bodies around the ice at everything in a white jersey with a blue maple leaf on it. And not just with reckless abandon, but with purpose as well.
The lower lines were providing the energy and the rest of the forwards then fed off of it.
Kari Lehtonen was placed in the goal in relief of Hedberg and stopped everything that came his way. Of course, it helped that the defense in front of him allowed only 9 SOG to get through to him for the remaining 40-plus minutes of the game. After splitting the 16 shots on goal after 20 minutes of play with Toronto, Atlanta outshot the Leafs 30-9 over the remaining two periods and 3:51 of overtime.
Kovy and Bryan Little each scored to pull Atlanta to within one by the second break…Kaptain Kovalchuk then tied the score with 4:52 remaining in regulation. This set the stage for that new kid Peverley to score his first goal as a Thrasher in overtime. For the night, The Peever had one goal and two assists, Kovalchuck had a pair of goals and assisted on Peverley’s game-winner.
Ahhhhh…so that’s why John Anderson wanted Don Waddell to pluck this guy up. It was all becoming clear-er-er and clear-er-er.
The Thrashers then took that momemtum up to Nashville to shred the Preds 7-2 the very next night. They would go on to finished out the season 21-17-1 since the beginning of that fantastic come-from-behind victory, including an 11-8-0 mark at home.
Even though that win wasn’t enough to propel the Thrashers into a post-season run, (they were far to removed from such at the time), it did start an incredible turnaround by the team…in their play, their attitude and their style. Unlike the previous year’s version of the Atlanta Thrashers who completely fell apart down the stretch, this squad seemed to progress more and more as the season moved along.
Shortly after, the Thrashers played to a 2-1-1 record on a west coast swing that took them to Anaheim, Los Angeles, Phoenix and San Jose. Two of those teams are in the playoffs…the other two were in the hunt at the time. The first two games were won 8-4 against the Duck and 7-6 against the Kings. That’s 14 goals in about a 33 hour span…15 if you count the gimmick shootout “goal”.
Later came the franchise-best six game winning streak in which Atlanta bested Montreal, Calgary, Colorado, Edmonton, Buffalo and Washington. The wins against the Canadiens and Avs were by way of Kari Lehtonen shutouts.
They started to embrace this role known as “spoiler”…beating teams in the last few weeks of the season who were in dire need of points to keep their playoff hopes alive. Take a look at Buffalo who came up short of post-season play by 2 points. The Thrashers beat them four times in overtime this season, twice in the last five weeks. The Cal-GARY Flames were beaten 5-2 by Atlanta back on March 8…they lost out to Vancouver for the Northwest Division championship by, you guessed it, two points. That’s the difference between being a #3 seed facing a St. Louis team making it’s first playoff appearance since the lockout… and being a #5 seed and facing the Chicago Blackhawks.
Neither will be easy…but given a choice, who would you pick to play in the first round?
Oh, and don’t you just know Florida wished they had just one more point in the standings…even just gaining one of the two that were lost in a 3-1 loss to the Thrashers two Friday night’s ago on their home ice would have put them into the playoffs.
While it stinks to be going into another Thrasher-less playoff season, the feeling about this team is 100% opposite of what it was this time last year. And to me, that feeling all began in the 45th game of this past season… a 4-3 overtime thriller on a most remarkable evening at Philips Arena.
Our friend at the Blueland Roar, Sean Grace… or should I say, Sean Garguilo…had a night to remember himself Saturday. Just after the Thrashers’ 6-2 smack-down of Tampa Bay he was awarded the 7th Man Award which is given out in recognition of the team’s #1 fan.
I had the pleasure of first meeting Sean and his wonderful wife Stacy last summer when a group of us blogger/writer types were invited to meet with coach John Anderson. He’s as genuine a guy you’ll ever meet and he absolutely bleeds Thrasher-blue! Over the course of this past season I spent most games sharing section 119 with the Sean and it just made the whole experience that much more fun for me.
It’s a well-deserved honor for him and I was thrilled to have been there to see him accept the award from Ilya Kovalchuck…as well as his #17 jersey.