Atlanta Thrashers fans, players, and management are more than happy to wave last week goodbye.
Last wednesday, Thrashers General Manager Don Waddell told Ilya Kovalchuk to prepare for a trade. A little over 24 hours later, the face of the franchise was on a plane to Newark, New Jersey to join his new team, the Devils.
The thursday night trade left many Thrashers fans feeling betrayed by the former Captain, and some spoke of giving up on the 10 year-old franchise once and for all. It also left the team without a leader. Alas, there was no time to dwell, as the Kovalchuk-less squad was set to play the unfathomably hot Washington Capitals one night later. It would be a 5-2 loss. Although the Thrashers could not end the Capitals then 11-game winning streak, the team performed surprisingly well through two periods, ultimately succumbing to a 3 goal third period by Ovechkin's Caps. After losing their leading scorer and captain, I think most in Blueland can accept that loss.
However, a tough game at the Verizon Center was only the beginning. The Thrashers were scheduled for a 7:00PM game Friday night at Philips Arena in Atlanta against the division rival Florida Panthers. A massive snow storm apparently had other plans. The team originally planned to leave DC after the game against the Capitals, but the flight was scrapped due to the weather. So, the team stayed in Washington for the night and took a charter bus down to Richmond, Virginia for another flight the next morning. On the way, the bus clipped a tanker truck and lost a side-view mirror in the process. “It was a pretty scary ride,” said coach John Anderson. Of course, when they arrived in Richmond, the flight was delayed another two hours. With a 7 o'clock game ahead of them, the team lifted off from Richmond at 4 o'clock, which is usually around the time players like to arrive at the arena to being pre-game routines.
The team did not get to the arena until 6:30. The start time of the game was delayed almost one hour, with the puck finally dropping at about 7:50PM.
Not the best circumstances to start the second of back-to-back games. The Thrashers quickly found themselves in 2-0 hole after 1 period of play. It looked as though all of the weeks events were still weighing heavily on the Thrashers players.
Except for Ron Hainsey. After the opening of the second period, Hainsey and Panther's Defenseman Keith Ballard dropped the gloves and fought, with Hainsey landing the better punches. After that, things were different. Maxim Afinogenov and Bryan Little both scored to bring the game back to square one, tied 2-2.
Going into the third, the Thrashers had the momentum. Panthers goalie Tomas Vokoun was forced to make some outstanding saves. However, with just under 5 minutes remaining in the contest, Thrashers newcomer (via Kovalchuk trade) Niclas Bergfors made a sweet move around a Panthers defenseman and wired a shot top shelf beyond Vokoun. Advantage Thrashers. They held on as Evander Kane was credited with the empty-netter, and the Thrashers gave a crowd of 16,000+ an inspiring 4-2 victory.
Lost in all of this are Bergfors and newcomer defenseman Johnny Oduya. They met with team just hours before the Capitals game. Then, they were subjected to the hellish travel on Friday afternoon. They barely knew their teammates, or even the coach for that matter, and had not practiced with the team at all. Nonetheless, Bergfors came up big with the game winner, and Oduya had a fantastic night on the penalty kill as the thrashers went 7-7 against the Panthers.
Thrashers grinder Colby Armstrong had the quote of the week following the Kovalchuk trade: “I think everyone in here still believes we can do it as a team, which is the most important thing. I think if we play that way every night and make a few adjustments, we will have a great effort every night and still be in the hunt.”
Meanwhile, in New Jersey, Ilya Kovalchuk is already getting skewered for taking long shifts and coasting in the defensive zone. I'm not surprised. One thing we learned on Friday night is that Kovalchuk may have been the face of the franchise, but he was not the heart. The Thrashers played with more heart in friday's comeback win than they have displayed in quite some time. As painful as it is to see another All-Star player leave the Thrashers, this opens up opportunities for Rich Peverley, Nik Antropov, and Pavel Kubina to lead the team, and for Bergfors, Little, Bogosian, and Kane to follow suit.
Now, the Thrashers have a much needed couple of days for practice. They will travel to Denver tuesday night to face the Avalanche on wednesday. They finish up this week with back-to-back road contests against the Minnesota Wild and the Chicago Blackhawks friday and saturday. It will be another tough week, and the Thrashers need to take at least 2 of 3 if they want to make progress in the standings.
Notes: Kari Lehtonen is practicing with the team after being recalled from the Chicago Wolves…Boris Valabik is expected to be out for the remainder of the season with a torn ACL.
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Written by Kevin Thurston