Dead to Rights

by Ryan

The Atlanta Thrashers have something special going on for sure, but not something we haven’t seen firsthand. After an 0-6 start and an embarrassing 4-0 shutout loss on national television, they fired Bob Hartley today. I couldn’t help but find last night’s opponent extremely ironic, because the Thrashers are doing exactly what Philadelphia did last year.

Recall for a moment the first round of the Stanley Cup Playoffs. The Buffalo Sabres in the #4 seed hosted the #5 seed Philadelphia Flyers. After an exciting Game One, the Sabres blew out Philly 8-2 in Game Two, a game in which Flyers goaltender Robert Eshe actually left his crease to tussle with a player near the team benches.

After tying the series at two at home, Philly was shut out 3-0 in Game 5 , and absolutely dismantled at home in the series finale, 7-1. The Flyers were never the same after Game Two, looking outplayed and outmatched on all fronts. The playoff defeat never left the team, and a lackluster opening of the 2006-07 season was personified by a 9-1 drubbing by that same Sabres team on October 17th, a game nationally televised on Versus.

The game marked a rapid shift in the history of the Flyers, one that they still feel today. Just days after, Flyers ownership fired Ken Hitchcock, and GM Bob Clake resigned. The team floundered for the rest of the year, finishing last in the Eastern Conference with 22 wins.

What does that have to do with anything? Well, the Thrashers’ woes didn’t start this October. They’ve been dead to rights since last spring, riding a ten game losing streak that started by getting swept by the New York Rangers, including a 7-0 Game Three final. Thrashers goaltending was awful, and star Ilya Kovalchuk was completely throw off by Sean Avery throughout.

Just another playoff match up that completely destroyed a good playoff team, this time a division winner. It’s no coincidence in how the Thrasher’s season ended last year and how this year began. The Thrashers have an eerie resemblance to last year’s Flyers. Both teams carried struggling goaltenders, frustrated players, and a longtime coach that couldn’t re-motivate his team. Both were badly outplayed in the postseason and began the season looking light years behind other teams, culminating in an embarrassing loss on national television.

In essence, that playoff loss “killed” Atlanta, much like how Sabres fans joked we collectively “killed” the Flyers last year. I know Philly has seen a strong resurgence this year, but how often does a perennial playoff team lose one series and carry those consequences over so dramatically the next year? That playoff defeat literally set the franchise back a year, maybe even longer.

In the case of both teams, such a sound spanking in the postseason carried so much bad karma it caused a team with relatively the same roster to be completely lost. Philadelphia was a 101 point team in 05-06. Something happened between that April ‘06 and the following fall, and my guess is that it happened on ice.

It’s hard to argue that Atlanta won’t follow the same path. The Thrashers haven’t won a game since April 7th, and the way they looked last Thursday, it may take a while before they even look competitive again. GM Don Waddell, once embattled himself, will be interim coach. How well do you think that will turn out?

“Certainly Bob has been here a long time. … We weren’t getting the most, particularly out of our veteran players, and that was a concern,” Waddell said.

Doesn’t that sound a bit like…

Snider said he was optimistic about the team’s future with Holmgren and Stevens at the helm. Snider said he didn’t expect miracles, but hoped the changes might prompt better results from the players.

“We’ll see how they respond,” Snider said. “Hopefully they will respond favourably.”

Sounds pretty similar to me.

There is no real way to know how Atlanta will do this year, but I don’t expect them to fare much better than a 60 point season. Philly had to make a lot of moves to get a new core group, and I think Atlanta may need to try the same thing. Goaltending has to be a concern, and Waddell may have to decide if he needs to move his assets (Hossa, Kovalchuk) for a younger group of players. Philly did that with Foppa and are looking good so far.

Looking forward, it will be interesting to see if something like this will happen again to another team. It may be just be a bad start for the Thrashers, and maybe Philly just had a bad year in 06-07. Still, you can’t help but look at the similarities between the two teams. Sometimes momentum is everything in hockey, both negative and positive. The beating sustained from the Rangers last spring seem to have taken their toll on Atlanta, it’s only a matter of time before it happens again.