With the NHL Board of Governors scheduled to vote on the sale and relocation of the Thrashers on Tuesday the end is drawing near for the Blueland Blog so now seems like as good a time as any to reflect on the last six years.
The Blueland Blog launched in the summer of 2005 as the lockout ended. I was fortunate to enough to join the Thrashers staff that September and have been here ever since, managing the blog, atlantathrashers.com, and various other projects over the last six seasons.
There have been a lot of great memories formed over that time and in the first of a series of blog posts I’d like to look back at my five favorite Thrashers games. by no means am I making a case for them being the best games or the most important games- they’re just the ones that stand out to me for one reason or another as being special to me.
I’ve written about this game before so the story will be familiar to some readers. The short version goes like this- I moved to Atlanta from Ottawa in September of 2005 to take this job and to be closer to my girlfriend. I moved down with a ring already purchased and on Nov. 18 I was at my girlfriend’s condo in Athens planning to propose after the game. I cooked dinner and we watched the game as I waited to hatch my plan. When the Thrashers blew a 3-1 lead to trail 5-3 heading into the third I suggested we turn the TV off so I could get the proposal over with. She wanted to stick it out though and wouldn’t you know it, the Thrashers scored twice in the final 1:50 of the third to force OT where Greg de Vries won it for Atlanta. Half an hour later we were engaged and 10 months later we got married. Incidentally, haven’t turned off a Thrashers game early since. By the way, that was the last time the Thrashers beat the Flyers until Nov. 28, 2009, making them winless in 14 straight versus Philly.
The Thrashers had never beaten the Red Wings in their history prior to this game and they didn’t make it easy for themselves this time around either. The two teams were tied 2-2 early in the second when the floodgates opened as the Thrashers built a 6-2 lead by the end of the frame. Six different Thrashers had goals at that point, but the Red Wings weren’t deterred. They stormed back with four goals in the third to tie it at 6-6 before the midway point of the period but Patrik Stefan spoiled the comeback with under five minutes remaining by scoring his second goal of the game to give Atlanta a 7-6 win. there were a few things I loved about this game- the scoring balance (six Thrashers goal scorers), Michael Garnett’s willingness to battle even though he was getting shelled in goal (he finished with a game-high .833 save percentage compared to .813 for Jimmy Howard and .750 for Chris Osgood), but what I remember most clearly is watching Steve Yzerman who was injured and sitting about 15 feet away from em in the press box. The Red Wings were easily the best regular season team in the NHL in 2005-06 and were 21-8-2 heading into the game in Atlanta, but as the Thrashers’ goals piled up Yzerman became more and more upset. Then as the Wings stormed back he became equally excited until Patrik Stefan put the game to rest, crushing Yzerman’s spirits again. I didn’t take any joy in seeing Yzerman get upset, but it was amazing to watch a future Hall of Famer who was in his 22nd season care so much about a mid-season non-conference game against a team he had no reason to worry about. It spoke volumes about his competitive spirit.
It was the final game of the 2006-07 regular season and a playoff seed were on the line. If the Thrashers won they’d win the title and face New York in their first-ever playoff appearance. If they lost Tampa would have enough points to move ahead of the Rangers and the two teams would square off in the first round, and it looked like that might happen when Tampa went up 2-0 in the second period, but Ilya Kovalchuk answered promptly to make it 2-1 after two and Slava Kozlov tied it up early in the third. Overtime decided nothing so the game went to a dramatic shootout. Kozlov and Hossa, who were both clutch in shootouts, were both thwarted, and Brad Richards put the Lightning up 1-0. If the next shooter didn’t’ score Tampa would win, and the next shooter was Kovy who was 1-13 in NHL shootouts at that point in his career. To the amazement of everyone Kovy scored and forced another round, and another and another where a Jon Sim goal and a Kari Lehtonen save on Eric Perrin earned the Thrashers a win, a division title, and a playoff matchup against the Rangers.
Ironically, the Rangers were the hottest team in the East heading into the playoffs, going 12-3-3 down the stretch, and they stayed red-hot in their sweep pf the Thrashers. How would franchise history have turned out of Kovalchuk had missed that pivotal shootout shot and set up a playoff meeting with the Lightning instead? Would they have won a playoff game? Could the Thrashers have won a playoff series? We’ll never know.
The playoffs? Need I say more? They were the two most meaningful games in franchise history, and even though they were both losses (by scores of 4-3 and 2-1) they were also the greatest games in franchise history. The Thrashers never led in either game but battled from start to finish in both. Eric Belanger scored the first playoff goal in franchise history in the first game and Johan Hedberg set a franchise record for playoff saves with 37 in the second. The crowds were absolutely electric for both games and the “Let’s go Thrashers!” chant that started well before game and stunned visiting media was one of the most moving sporting moments I’ve ever witnessed in person. The excitement and the optimism were unbelievable.
A friend from high school was visiting with her husband and young son and I got them tickets to the game. They live in Calgary and are huge Flames fans but did their best to be polite with their cheering when the Flames took a 2-0 lead in the first period and then extended it to 3-0 early in the second. I distinctly remember looking at them and telling them not to get too excited because this team had a tendency to come on strong late.
Less than two minutes later Kovy scored to make it 3-1. 19 seconds later Colby Armstrong cut it to 3-2 and by the end of the second it was 4-3 Calgary. Midway through the third Chris Thorburn tied it up and a few minutes later Bobby Holik potted the eventual game-winner. Kovalchuk added an empty-net goal for good measure, and despite Calgary going down in flames my friends still enjoyed themselves and admitted that Atlanta wasn’t such a bad hockey town. The highlight of the game? Me getting their son to cheer every time the Thrashers scored. It drove his mother crazy.
It was Thanksgiving weekend and the Thrashers were on the road in Raleigh. It looked like they were suffering from Thanksgiving hangovers as Carolina flew out to a 4-1 lead by the end of the second period, but the Russians rallied the troops to mount one of the most impressive comebacks in franchise history as Slava Kozlov, Ilya Kovalchuk and Max Afinogenov each scored in the span of 2:39 to tie the game at 4-4 by the 9:00 mark of the third. Rich Peverley scored just under four minutes later and Marty Reasoner capped the night off with an empty-net goal for give Atlanta a 6-4 win. The Thrashers beat the Panthers the next night and the Flyers two nights after that to enter December with a 14-7-3 record. Unfortunately a 4-7-1 December marked the beginning of their long, slow slide out of playoff contention.
In a previous post about my first pro hockey game I mentioned that my older brother took me to my first game- an AHL game on Prince Edward Island. A decade and a half later I returned the favor and took him and my mother to a game at Philips Arena. It was also the first Thrashers game I’d been in the stands for in well over a year (I’d been in the press box working for the rest). We had great seats in 117 and the Thrashers came out flying, scoring early and often and in every way possible. Thorburn and Little at even strength. Ladd short-handed. Stewart and Buff on the power play. By midway through the game the Wings had given up and the Thrashers skated to a 5-1 win with Ondrej Pavelec making 32 saves for the victory. The Thrashers were in the best stretch of their season and looked like world beaters, and I had the pleasure of watching it all from the stands with my family. It was also one of the last games I ever watched from the stands and it will probably always be my favorite.
Hat Trick Games
There were 17 hat tricks scored by Thrashers players (eight of them by Kovalchuk) in the six seasons I covered the team and every single one of them was a joy to watch. There’s something thrilling about seeing players try to set their teammate up for that special third goal and it’s even more exciting when the player involved isn’t a regular goal scorer and maybe that’s why the last two were so special. the second-last hat trick was scored by Anthony Stewart in Anaheim early this past season. Stewart had four career goals to his name prior to that game and managed to break his career high for goals (two) and tie his personal best for points (three) with one brilliant performance. The goals also mattered since the Thrashers ended up winning 5-4 in a shootout. It was the start of something good for Stewart who finished the year with 14 goals.
The final hat trick of the year went to Mr. Eric Boulton who had never topped four goals in any single season of his career before notching six in 2010-11. The first goal of his hat trick was scored against Martin Brodeur and stood up as the game-winner in the 7-1 Thrashers win. The second and third goals were scored versus Boulton’s old teammate Johan Hedberg and you have to wonder if deep down inside Hedberg was happy for good old Boults. The best part of the night was seeing the ear-to-ear grin on Boulton’s face in the locker room afterwards. The rugged enforcer tries to put on a stoic act in front of the media, but he couldn’t help cracking a smile on his special night.
Here is the video of Boulton’s hat trick if you want to re-live it.
Every Home opener Since The Lockout
There’s something special about the tart of a new season. Fans and players alike are filled with optimism and no matter how the previous season ended everyone has a clean slate. The playoffs are always the goal and after a good home opener that goal always seemed attainable.
In the six seasons following the lockout the Thrashers went 4-1-1 in their home season openers with the lone loss coming in 2007-08 when the team started 0-6-0. Can you remember how excited you were in 2005 when the Thrashers came out of the lockout and crushed the Capitals 8-1 in their home opener one night after thumping them 7-3 in DC without Ilya Kovalchuk? How about in 2008-09 when the Thrashers beat the Capitals again, this time by a score of 7-4 to give John Anderson his first NHL win (and against his good friend Bruce Boudreau no less)?
There are few times in a sports fan’s life when they’re as optimistic as they are on the first day of a new season, and that feeling will be one of the ones I miss the most when the 2011-12 season starts without Thrashers hockey.
Thanks for bearing with me through this long-winded post. There were way more great games over the last six years than I was able to fit in. What were some of your favorites post-lockout, and what were some of the great ones that I missed in the early years from 1999-2004?