“I’m a great believer in luck. And I find the harder I work, the more I have of it” – Thomas Jefferson
In the latter stages of the first period last Friday night, the Washington Capitals found themselves on a fast break through center ice. The score at the time was 3-0 Atlanta and the visiting team looked to get themselves back into the game with a goal before the break.
The lone Thrashers defenseman back was Ron Hainsey and he opted to play the man with the puck as he raced into the zone on the right side. Hainsey had little option to do so, but it left the center wide open. Into that space, a forward was streaking towards Ondrej Pavelec’s goal. The puck was passed through, setting up a one-timer between the circles.
However, racing back to break up the play was Thrashers rookie forward Alex Burmistrov. He was able to read the unfolding play perfectly and hustled himself into the right position to tip the puck away just in the nick of time.
Later in the game, after Atlanta had increased the score to 4-0, Burmistrov scored one of the prettiest goals you’ll see in quite a while. His moves through the left side of the Capitals defense to cap off the night’s scoring was filled with twists and turns that left Caps defenseman Jeff Schultz and goalie Michal Neuvirth searching around the net for their athletic supporters and other various protective gear.
Of the two plays, which one do you think people are more apt to remember four months from now?
Well… the logical answer would be the highlight reel goal, of course. But if the Thrashers are to find themselves in the thick of playoff contention when March rolls around, it will be because of plays like the first one I described… the hard-working, all-out-hustle type of play that rarely, if ever, gets air time on any sports programming.
“Nobody’s a natural. You work hard to get good and the you work hard to get better” – Paul Coffey
Back checking plays like Burmistrov’s can get overlooked during blowout games like the one the Thrashers enjoyed two night’s ago. But during close games decided by one or two goals, they stand out like one of Don Cherry’s outfits in a boardroom full of corporate suits and ties. Unfortunately, so too do glaring mistakes, untimely mental lapses and inattentiveness to detail…see also, the three previous games last week prior to the win against Washington.
The same can be said of hard work and hustle that many times begin plays that ultimately lead to goals.
Case in point, take the first of the five goals that were scored by Atlanta Friday night. Nik Antropov got the puck to Ben Eager who was stationed in front of the net and he knocked it home. But moments before, Eager had executed a solid check along the boards near the goal line. Instead of admiring his work or coasting into position, he quickly moved to put himself where he needed to be and scored the all-important early goal to put his team on top.
Yes, attention to detail and hard work…doing the little things that sometimes go unnoticed. Those are the ingredients that go into a winning formula for any hockey team looking to make a serious run at the postseason. And it’s the teams that perform these tasks night in and night out that find themselves in a good position to play beyond the regularly scheduled 82 game season. Not just when teams are ramping it up a notch during the final stretch towards the playoffs…but also in November and December when, last I checked, the games still counted just as much as they do in March and April.
They also pack those playing habits in their lunch pales regardless of who the competition is. Sure, you can see how a team like the Thrashers can get juiced when the team with the leagues’ best record comes to town, as was the case with the Capitals. But when the team sitting on the other bench has the fewest points in the standings and is riding a twelve-game losing streak…like today’s opponent the New York Islanders…you still have to be willing to put in the same effort, (DUH5).
“We are what we repeatedly do. Excellence, then, is not an act, but a habit” – Aristotle
The question is… how does a coach get his players up for such a game when it’s so easy to throttle it down a notch? May I suggest the word, discipline?
Going back to Ben Eager’s goal-producing check…what I found very interesting about that play was that it came on the very first shift after he had found himself on the wrong end of a short bench during the third period of the game before. He and a couple other Thrashers had earned the extra sitting time in the second period of the 2-1 loss to the Florida Panthers, and coach Ramsay skated those he felt would give him full effort during the final 20 minutes.
As he told Chris Vivlamore, “I feel bad for the guys that don’t play, but if they aren’t demanding ice time that the nature of the game.”
It was the type of disciplinary action not seen in Thrasherville since the days of Bob Hartley, who had no qualms whatsoever in placing a deserving player in timeout. He was even known to put in the seat of shame this young gun that goes by the name of Ilya Kovalchuk when he decided to dog it for a shift or two. To Hartley, if you didn’t want to work hard shift in and shift out…then you just didn’t want to play.
And that lack of discipline around here over the past few years has lead to some sloppy, uninspired, lazy…sometimes even just flat out embarrassing…play. The record speaks for itself.
Holding players accountable and providing swift and effective corrective measures is essential to a team’s overall success. And in the example of Ben Eager, it’s easy to see the results when a message is sent, received and taken to heart.
Hopefully that received message…and Friday night’s effort and attention to detail… make a repeat showing tonight against the Islanders and forms into a habit with these Thrashers.