Sunday, March 21, 2010

Quirky schedule make-or-break for Atlanta


If you really wanted to, you could label every team in the NHL as a "Jekyll and Hyde" team. Some teams show it more than others, while some, like Washington, rarely are up-and-down. For instance, the Sharks are very much in a Hyde phase at the present time.

One of the teams whose season has been a bumpy roller coaster ride for most of the year is Atlanta. The Thrashers, both pre- and post-Ilya Kovalchuk, have shown stretches of being a genuine hockey club. Then there are times when they're the poster child of the SouthLeast Division.

Yet they just might make the playoffs.

How they play over the final three weeks will in part determine that, and Atlanta has something of a goofy schedule. On paper, the Thrashers' remaining games can also be described as Jekyll and Hyde.

Fresh off a 5-2 win over Philadelphia Saturday, Atlanta plays the second of a home-and-home with the Flyers on Sunday. Of Atlanta's last 11 games, nine come against five opponents.

Following the second game against the Flyers, the Thrashers play two games each against Toronto, Carolina (back-to-back), Washington and Pittsburgh. But it's what happens in March that might make Atlanta's season.

Atlanta's next five games, the final five in March, are against teams that arguably, the Thrashers should defeat. A big matchup with Boston looms Tuesday, then the four games against the Maple Leafs and Hurricanes, who are both playing very good hockey these days. In fact, Carolina isn't necessarily out of the playoff picture now.

It's imperative for Atlanta to earn as many points as it can from these six games (counting Sunday's game at Philadelphia) because as much as March might make its year, April could tear it down.

Three of Atlanta's five games in the final month are on the road. The opponents: at Washington, at Pittsburgh, New Jersey, back to Washington, then close the season home against Pittsburgh again.

Ouch. Particularly when you factor in the Thrashers' record against those five opponents. (See below.)

Potentially working in Atlanta's favor, at least in the two meetings with the Capitals, is Bruce Boudreau may rest some of his players for the postseason. Washington, with Chicago and San Jose's troubles, is rapidly pulling away with the Presidents' Trophy and will have little to play for in April.

The Penguins and Devils, on the other hand, could still be jockeying for the Atlantic Division title.

So that's four games against teams below them in the standings, one against the team directly above them, and five against arguably the top three teams in the conference. Which Atlanta team will show up? The one that went 2-5-1, including six straight losses, right out of the Olympic break to knock it out of contention, or the one that has earned three straight impressive victories against quality teams (Buffalo, Ottawa, Philadelphia) to be just a point out of eighth going into Sunday?

Atlanta's head-to-head record against remaining opponents
Philadelphia: 3-0-0
Boston: 0-2-1
Toronto: 1-1-0
Carolina: 2-2-0
Washington: 0-4-0
Pittsburgh: 0-2-0
New Jersey: 1-2-0

No comments: