The rise of the Thrashers
The talk in Toronto today is the Atlanta Thrashers, who are in town to face the Maple Leafs tonight at the Air Canada Centre.
Most of 'the talk' comes in the form of a question, one I'm not quite sure we have an answer to quite yet.
Is this team for real?
Because, while Atlanta showed signs of promise last season, few predicted this to be a breakout season. Unlike other clubs that have stormed out of the gates — Buffalo, San Jose, Dallas, Anaheim and Minnesota — the Thrashers were seen as a middling team that would be battling tooth and nail for the franchise's first-ever playoff spot. They had, after all, lost their 97-point, top-line centreman in Marc Savard in the offseason, and that had to take at least a little bite out of a line-up seemingly thin on offensive depth.
Yet, here we are, 12 games in, and Atlanta is 8-1-3 and second in scoring with 45 goals. The usual suspects — Marian Hossa and Ilya Kovalchuk— have been phenomenal, chipping in with 10 and eight goals apiece, but there have also been big offensive contributions from 40-year-old Scott Mellanby (6 goals, 5 assists), Jon Sim (6 goals) and Bobby Holik (3 goals, 2 assists).
But the biggest difference has come defensively. Atlanta didn't have any problems scoring goals last season, finishing tied for fifth last season, but were near the bottom of the league in terms of goals allowed (24th). This time around, they're all the way up at 8th and netminder Kari Lehtonen is a huge reason why.
The thing is (and I know the Southeast Shootout fellows won't like my saying it) you have to wonder, given how mediocre their division is this year, just how high Atlanta can go this season. Based on their point totals so far, the Thrashers' four division rivals would all miss the playoffs (Carolina and Washington are both on pace for 82 points and are second in the division) and, given what I've seen, deservedly so.
Atlanta is already 6-1-2 against divisional opponents, and with 24 games left to be played against Southeast teams, they could rack up a ton of points and run away with the division title. I don't think it's too far out of line to say much of the Thrashers' early season success has come as a result of Carolina, Tampa Bay, Florida and Washington not playing particularly well — something that may continue all year.
Even still, only one team has been able to come away from a game with the Sabres with two points, and you can't take that away from Atlanta.