It was the best of times, it was the worst of times.
I take you back to December 18, 2010, the last time the New Jersey Devils played in Atlanta. They slumped out of town after being drubbed 7-1 behind an Eric Boulton hat trick and their overall record fell to 9-21-2. The Thrashers, however, saw their position in the NHL standings elevate to 18-11-5 and the 41 points earned after just 31 games were enough to place them atop the Southeast Division.
The lone goal scored by the visiting team that night was former Thrashers Ilya Kovalchuk. It was only his 8th of the season thus far.
We in Thrasherville were dancing in the streets with joy as we experience a type of success not often seen in these parts. Two days after crushing the Devils, they traveled to Toronto and blew away the Leafs 6-3 and whispers of “Jack Adams” floated around Craig Ramsay. Truly, it was the best of times.
Devils fans, on the other hand, were left dealing with the exact same kind of misery we usually are accustomed to…losing and lingering around the bottom of the standings. Surely it was among the worst of times for them.
Oh how times have changed.
The following week, following a 5-1 loss to Washington, the Devils relieved head coach John MacLean. 9 wins in 33 games, it would seem, is unacceptable for the New Jersey organization. That, plus it would appear there is no rule up there which states that a long-time assistant and AHL coach must be given a year or two into his first NHL head coaching job before determining whether or not things are working out.
Stepping back behind the bench for the Devils was their former coach Jacques Lemaire and the rest, as they say, is history.
After losing 5-1 to the Islanders, 4-1 to Toronto and 3-1 to the Rangers, the Devils welcomed in the Atlanta Thrashers for a New Years Eve matchup. The result was a 3-1 win for the Devils. They used that victory to then catapult themselves to a 30-7-2 record so far in calendar year 2011…including a ridiculous 20-2-2 run.
As for that Kovalchuk fellow…he’s netted 10 goals and 9 assists in the last 17 games, six of which were game-winners. Oh yeah…and he’s a +11 in those games as well.
In their most recent game they fell 2-1 to the last place in the east Ottawa Senators, but the Devils still remain as hot as the flames of Hell. So much so that Lemaire is now being given serious consideration for the Jack Adams Award… even if they do fail to make the playoffs.
Conversely… even though the Thrashers have found a way to win two straight games in overtime this past week, they’ve sunk like a rock in the standings in the past several weeks. Since we watched the Devils slip out of town with their forked tails tucked between their legs last December, they have gone 10-17-6…8-13-5 since the defeat in New Jersey to end 2010…4-9-2 since the All Star break.
Only three times since the Thrashers high-water mark last December have they denied an opponent two points for a win or even one consolation point for at least getting the game into overtime. They’ve procured 24 points in the standings since then, but have given away 42.
Too many times we’ve seen a minor setback in a game turn into a major crisis. One goal scored against us turned into a second one seconds later…three or four more before all was said and done. Skaters have quit before the second period was complete, pucks wind up in our goal after a failure to clear the defensive zone, the offense went AWOL for a period of time and adjustments made by the opposition went unanswered.
Now, as the two teams again prepare to face off at Philips Arena just three months later…they both find themselves clinging to their slim postseason chances, each with little to no margin of error remaining to play with.
As for the Thrashers, I would think that unless they can extend their current two-game winning streak to four, five or even six games with wins over the Devils and Philadelphia Flyers their hopes for the playoffs are all but gone. If they are unable to do so, then the remaining games will serve only to determine where they’ll end up in this summer’s draft.
But as we’ve seen with New Jersey, until a team is mathematically eliminated anything can happen. That’s why they play the games after all.
Regardless, when you watch these two teams take the ice tonight you’ll be watching a tale of two different teams…two different organizations…play out the final chapters of a season that has taken two separate paths since they last met here.