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NHL Eastern Conference Preview


NHL Eastern Conference preview this season is provided by Washington Capitals’ columnist, Michael Hoffman so grab a Molson and take a look at the East. BTW, he didn’t go “homer” on us. . . he actually picked the Devils to edge out his hometown Caps and represent the Eastern Conference in the Stanley Cup Finals.

Here is his in-depth and fearless prediction on how the Eastern Conference will look.

1. New Jersey Devils- The Devils are just a very complete team. Not only do they have one of the best forwards in the NHL, in Ilya Kovalchuk, they also have a defender who has the potential to be the most disruptive in the NHL in Anton Volchenkov.

 

While the star power is certainly there, the Devils are strong because of the full sum of their parts, as the Devils carry a number of centers in Travis Zajac, Jason Arnott and Danius Zubrus who are battled tested and have good skill in all aspects of the game. Oh, and they still have some guy named Martin Brodeur and 38 years old or not, he still may have more than a few good years left.

2. Washington Capitals- As elite a player as Alexander Ovechkin is, from watching this team almost every game last season, the guy you really need to start talking about is Nicklas Backstrom who makes the kind of passes that most others can only dream about. With seven guys who scored over twenty goals last year, the Capitals can run with anyone in the league. However their goaltenders, Semyon Varlamov and Michal Neuvirth are still relatively inexperienced.

3. Buffalo Sabres- The Northeast again is not a stacked division at all this year, but this year we expect Tomas Vanek, Drew Stafford and Jason Pominville to come back from a slightly disappointing 2009-10 and lead the Sabres charge. If that’s not enough, the Sabres are the only team that starts Ryan Miller in goal. If you haven’t heard, Ryan Miller’s really good.

4. Pittsburg Penguins- Paul Martin and Zbynek Michalek were excellent offseason pickups for the Penguins on defense as both of them are excellent puck moving defenseman, and in Martin’s case, just as good in his own end.

On offense the Penguins are stacked at center with Sidney Crosby and Evgeni Malkin. The pickup of Aaron Asham should also help, as he is a tough-noised agitator who will be a good role player.

5. Philadelphia Flyers- The same tough team they were last year but is Brian Boucher really be the answer in net? The Flyers might be the most annoying team to play in the league. They hit and at time, leave very little room to operate. Not a team you ever look forward to playing.

6. Carolina Hurricanes- The Carolina Hurricanes are quietly on the move, a funny thing for a team that comes at you fast. Patrick Dwyer was only twenty last year, when he reached the drinking age in goals, and this year he and the other young Canes like Anton Babchuk will only get better. Eric Stall will also want to prove he is worthy of the job in his first season as captain. We think we can do it.

7. Montreal Canadiens- As the Washington Capitals saw, the Canadiens have some of the best role-players in the league like Travis Moen, Scott Gomez and Maxim Lapierre who fight on the boards, and get the job done in the clutch. However this year, Montreal no longer has Jaroslav Halak who was traded to the Blues.  Expect to see a lot of angry Frenchmen come playoff time, but Montreal still has more than enough depth to make the playoffs.

8. Boston Bruins- Great defense but scoring is still a problem. Somehow I think last season’s shocking playoff collapse will still affect this team. They may only barely hang on to a playoff spot, if at all. Just a hunch.

9. New York Rangers- The Rangers were surprisingly quiet this offseason, as Alexander Frolov was their only major pickup. Still, the Rangers with Alexander Frolov and Marian Gaborik now should be okay in the goal scoring category. They also have a number of ‘gamers’ here like Ryan Callahan and Brandon Dubinksy, but overall the Rangers defense still leaves much to be desired.  They’ll just barely fall short of the playoffs.

10. Tampa Bay Lightning- A lot of great new pieces. The acquisition of Simone Gagne may be a game-changer but at least for this season, Tampa Bay will have a tough time getting all the new parts in line together.  Dan Ellis is hardly elite at this point either in net.

11. Atlanta Thrashers- Definitely on the right track but not there yet.

12. Ottawa Senators- The Senators are hoping for a comeback season from Jason Spezza and it certainly is possible, but while Spezza and guys like Mike Fisher certainly push the pace, it never last season looked like Ottawa was a team you would mind playing.

Outside of Chris Neil and the irascible Jarko Ruutu, this just isn’t a very physical team. Not only that, but starting goaltender Pascal Leclaire isn’t scaring anybody. Last year he had an adherent 3.20 GAA.

13. New York Islanders- When John Taveras puts it all together, the NHL better watch out. For now though the NHL has little to fear from an Islanders squad that lacks depth on offense. An injury to Kyle Okposo that should keep him out 2-3 months, won’t help matters either.

14. Toronto Maple Leafs- Toronto’s hit a tough spot lately. No playoffs  since 2004, the second least goals in the NHL last season and some guy named Tyler Bozak may be centering the first line. Suffice to say this season’s team is unlikely to bring back any memories of the 1967 squad that won the Stanley Cup. Dion Phaneuf will however continue to make this team better on defense but it simply won’t be enough.

 

15.   Florida Panthers– If you can name more than two members of this team, I give you all the credit in the world.

Eastern Conference Finals- Devils over Capitals in 6 games. It will be a match-up of the two deepest teams in the conference, but in the end the Devils have Martin Brodeur while the Capitals have two goaltenders who are barely over drinking age.

Ovechkin and company are great, but in the end experience counts. At the most important position, the Devils have it, and a superior defense to boot.

Used with permission of the author.

Based in Washington, D.C. Michael Hoffman has covered D.C. sports for numerous publications and is the Washington Redskins columnist and Washington Capitals columnist for Examiner.com. Hoffman is also an NFL and NHL contributor to Sports Climax.

Copyright ©2010 Sports Climax, LLC

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Kovalchuk signs with New Jersey Devils


After weeks of negotiating and a melodramatic roller-coaster ride that traveled coast-to-coast, Ilya Kovalchuk will remain with the New Jersey Devils.

Kovy was this summer’s hottest NHL unrestricted free agent after tallying 40 or more goals over the last six seasons, most of those with the Atlanta Thrashers. There was heavy speculation that Kovalchuk would be signing with the L.A. Kings with some of that chatter still going on yesterday.

News first broke that Kovy would be signing when Kovy’s agent, Jay Grossman Tweeted on his Twitter account that an announcement and decision was definitely coming today. Shortly after that message, the Devils announced they had signed the star left winger.

“Ilya is excited to be continuing his career with New Jersey and knows first-hand the team’s dedication and commitment to winning,” Grossman said.

“We all know that, even looking at him on another team, that he’s an exceptional talent,” said Devils coach John MacLean. “As I’ve stated before, I have not heard from anybody throughout the organization a bad word about him. He’s a tremendous teammate and addition. He’ll have no issues playing for the team. He signed here for a reason — to try to win a championship. This organization has a good history of that, so you know he wants to be part of the team. That’s what I’m excited about.”

After skating in Atlanta and only experiencing the playoffs one time throughout his entire career and playing in a series where his team was swept 4 games to 0 by the New York Rangers, Kovy will be lacing them up for an organization with a strong recent winning history.

Kovalchuk had 27 points in 27 games wearing a Devils jersey last year and totaled 41 goals and 85 points for the season. In the trade for the Russian skater, the Devils sent solid rookie forward, Niclas Bergfors and defenseman Johnny Oduya as well as a few other pieces. For New Jersey to come up empty-handed would have looked like a real boneheaded move so they stayed in the mix throught the past several weeks before finally landing the player.

No details of the contract were announced, but you have to assume the Devils will have to shuffle some players to stay under their $59.4 million salary cap before the start of the season.

NOTE: While playing with the Thrashers, the former No. 1 overall pick in the NHL Draft scored 328 goals and added 287 assists for 615 points in 594 games.

Copyright ©2010 Sports Climax, LLC

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NHL Free Agent Updates


The end of June means the start of the NHL free agent period. Here are some of the top stories creating the most buzz around the league.

Kovalchuk to the Kings?

Could this be the final piece in a championship run for L.A.’s “other” team. Even before the whisperings of New Jersey Devils Ilya Kovalchuk to the Kings, I thought Los Angeles might be the team of the future.

Already at 20-years-old you won’t find many defensemen as poised and as smooth as Drew Doughty, and it just seems like the Kings encompass every component of a winning hockey team.

Need physical play? Look no further than Dustin Brown, who with 24 goals last year, is begging to be a threat not only to those in the corner but to goaltenders as well.

Every team needs veteran scorers and leaders which the Kings have in Ryan Smyth and Michal Handzus, who does a great job clogging the lane on defense, but a team also needs someone with youthful energy.

For the type of player who doesn’t know the meaning of stop. Enter 22-year-old Wayne Simmonds, who responded to higher playing time after Ryan Smyth went down, with a streak in which he recorded 8 points in 6 games, scoring 4 goals.   

The Kings also have the type of natural scorer that every team needs in creative center Anze Kopitar, who like Simmonds and Doughty, is under 23. To say the future for hockey is bright in Los Angeles is about as obvious as saying that it’s a pretty decent place to find a plastic surgeon.

And if the rumors are true and Los Angeles is indeed at the front runner of signing Ilya Kovalchuk and there’s speculation the signing could occur as soon as early Thursday.

If the Kings win the Kovy sweepstakes, they will also dress their biggest superstar since Wayne Gretzky took the ice in the late 80’s. Since everyone wants to attach themselves to a winner, especially if you are as obsessed with relevance as the Hollywood set, might we soon be seeing Jack at Kings’ games? 

Does Savard get traded?

Bruins management has already shown their hand and said they are not looking to shore up the team with any free agent signings. Instead the B’s will try to cut salary from the books as they look to dump goaltender Tim Thomas ($5 million annual cap hit) and potentially center Marc Savard. ($4.083).

While most talk has centered on Savard possibly moving on to play in Toronto, a number of other teams badly need depth at the center position including the Washington Capitals.

Don’t be surprised if they aggressively become involved, however, a 7-year, $28.05 million contract might dissuade some teams.

Saku Koivu is still very much in demand. But why?

The center position has gotten a lot of attention in this brief pre-free agency period, and for good reason. The last four teams that made the Stanley Cup had elite depth at the center position with not one, but two guys who could play at the highest level. (Chicago: 1C- Kane.  2C- Sharp. Philadelphia: 1C- Briere. 2C- Richards. Pittsburgh: 1C-Crosby. 2C- Malkin. Detroit: 1C- Zetterberg 2C- Datsyuk).

Having one guy who can play but no second line center who can proficiently run an offense is no longer an option for teams that want to win at the highest level. This is a lesson that the Washington Capitals, with the great Nicklas Backstrom, but no one else who could significantly guide the offense at center, learned the hard way.

Because of that fact, even outside of the Savard trade talk, expect a lot of chatter over free agents like Coyotes center Matthew Lombardi, who plays a very complete game, as well as rising New York Rangers center Chris Higgins.

Like Higgins and even Lombardi, 35-year-old free agent Saku Koivu may not be considered a great option as a No. 1 center. Nevertheless with depth at center now a necessity and not a luxury item in the NHL, look at a lot of competition for him as the veteran center showed last season that he still has a little something in the tank with 52 points.

Scarcity of supply versus demand should have something to do with it. When Matt Cullen is your best center free agent option after Koivu, Higgins and Lombardi are eliminated, you know you are looking at a market for centers that isn’t exactly deep.

Finally, teams could also roll the dice and take a stab at Flames center Olli Jokinen, but at only 31, it appears his best years are well behind him.

The best of the rest free agent options.

The deepest position in the free agent market is at defense so we’ll start with that.

Anton Volchenkov, Defenseman, Ottawa Senators- I’ll straight up call you a liar if you tell me your team somehow does not need the man nicknamed the “Russian Bear.” A physical force; a puck moving defenseman and a man who averages 2.4 hits and 2.7 blocks per game. For the ladies enjoying this column, I’m also told he enjoys long walks on the beach and the poetry of Robert Frost.

Teams that may be actively looking for an upgrade at defense:

Buffalo, (if Henrik Tallander or Toni Lydman leave), Carolina, Colorado, Detroit, Edmonton, Long Island, (the Islanders have plenty of cap space,) Minnesota, (if the Wild lose Marek Zidlicky,) Philadlphia, (especially after trading the rights to Dan Hamhuis to Pittsburgh for a 3rd round draft pick) Ottawa, San Jose, Tampa Bay, Toronto, Washington, and Vancouver.

Other prized defensive options

Sergei Gonchar, Pittsburgh– It appears that the Penguins are ready to give Gonchar his walking papers. Gonchar at 36 is still one of the best offensive minded forwards in the league, but unlike many of his offensive minded cohorts, (cough, cough, errr. Mike Green) he doesn’t typically make a lot of mistakes getting back into position or coughing the puck up.

Paul Martin, New Jersey- Martin’s game is no thrills in a good way. He rarely makes a mistake in his own end, and with the puck he may not go down the ice, guns ablaze, but Martin’s controlled style was perfect for the Devils power play. Martin finished the year with two goals and 16 assists on the power play, as his 18 power play points tied for the team lead.

The Highest Sought Free Agent Goaltender

Evgeni Nabokov, Goaltender, San Jose Sharks- Even though it always seems to come apart for him eventually in the playoffs, you can’t deny Nabokov’s considerable talent. You also cannot deny the fact that he is the only who has posted three consecutive 40+ win seasons in the past three years.

Teams that may be in the market for a goaltender

Atlanta, Buffalo, (backup to Ryan Miller) Calgary, Edmonton, Long Island, Ottawa, Philadelphia, Tampa Bay, San Jose, (if they decide not to resign Nabokov,) Toronto and Washington.

The next best option after Nabokov

Chris Mason, St. Louis- With the Blues trading for Jaroslav Halak, it appears Mason has a one-way ticket out of the “show me” State. For everyone in search of a starting goaltender, Mason could be a relative bargain as he will likely receive less money than free agents Nabokov and Dallas goaltender Marty Turco, despite posting a solid 2.47 GAA in his two years with the Blues.

Best Bargain

Jay McKee, Defenseman, Pittsburgh Penguins- The perfect 3-5 defenseman on most any team. Jay “The Key” McKee is not the type of player that will ever have a slick New York marketing company touting his rugged individuality, but he is a player who is consistently steady, having only been a minus player in 3 of his 14 seasons in the league. McKee just plays the position and the man he is defending well, nothing more nothing less. McKee also averaged 2.21 blocks a game, having blocked 137 shots in 62 games. Not to shabby for a guy who makes $800,000, a year and next season might command even less.

Re-printed with permission of the author.

Based in Washington, D.C. Michael Hoffman has covered D.C. sports for numerous publications and is the Washington Capitals columnist for Examiner.com. Hoffman is also an NHL contributor to Sports Climax.  

Copyright ©2010 Sports Climax, LLC

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Thrashers Deck Flyers in 5-2 Win at Philips Arena


ATLANTA, GA. – It didn’t take long for the Atlanta Thrashers to get going Saturday night at Philips Arena in their Atlanta Thrashers Logoimportant match-up against their Eastern Conference rival Philadelphia Flyers.

After the Thrashers’ Jim Slater squared off with Flyers’ enforcer Dan Carcillo and sent Carillo to the ice with a solid punch just 39 seconds after the puck was dropped, the Thrashers fed off that adrenaline and rookie Niclas Bergfors scored the game’s first goal about one minute later to take a 1-0 lead.

That tally was Bergfors’ 20th of the season and 7th since coming over from New Jersey in the Ilya Kovalchuk trade.
A short time later Ian Laperriere attempted to avenge Carillo’s thrashing and took on Thrashers’ enforcer Eric Boulton.

Like watching a replay, Laperriere ended up on the ice after exchanging a few punches with Boulton and again the Thrashers responded by putting the puck in the net a short time later to take a 2-0 lead.

The Thrashers never let up and played with more desperation than the visitors, carrying the play much of the game and with the help of 2 Colby Armstrong goals, his 14th and 15th of the season, went on to earn a 5-2 victory. Like Bergfors, Armstrong has come to life as of late and has 4 goals and 1 assist in the past two games.

This game was important to both teams. The Flyers came into the contest sitting in the # 5 spot in the Eastern Conference just one point ahead of the # 7 Montreal Canadians while the Thrashers were just three points behind the Boston Bruins for the final playoff spot.

With the ice tilted in the Thrashers’ favor, Carillo returned to the ice after serving his fighting major penalty and regained some momentum for his team, tipping in a Chris Pronger shot for his 10th of the year at the 8:16 mark to narrow the gap to 2-1.

That is as close as the Flyers would get all night as the Thrashers never trailed in the game and each time the Flyers would score, the Thrashers would respond with another goal.

The win moved the Thrashers one point away from that final playoff spot that is owned by the Boston Bruins.

The Flyers and Thrashers meet again Sunday night to complete their back-to-back series then the Thrashers return home to face the Bruins Tuesday night for another important game at Philips Arena at 7pm.

Copyright ©2010 Sports Climax™

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Teflon Don is the Matt Millen of the NHL


Revised on February 10, 2010.

Now that Ilya Kovalchuk is donning a New Jersey Devil sweater and ‘goaltender of the future’ Kari Lehtonen has traded in his Thrashers blue for a Dallas star, it may be time to switch our (AP Photo/John Bazemore)speculation from ‘what team will win the Kovalchuk sweepstakes’ to ‘what city will the Thrashers be moving to’.

Don Waddell who was an assistant GM of the Detroit Red Wings and won a Stanley Cup with the team in 1998, has all but bombed since taking the helm for the Atlanta Thrashers and his journey has ‘Matt Millen’ written all over it.

Not to be outdone by Millen, in the same week he dumped Kovalchuk, he also traded another first-round pick Lehtonen. Add those two players to the other stars like Dany Heatley and Marian Hossa who have also left the building.

Know as Teflon Don for his ability to survive ‘sticky situations’ and somehow hang onto his job as his team remains near the cellar of his league for much of his 10 years as GM, he has set up the Atlanta Thrashers for failure by allowing his star players (again) to leave the building.

Many expect these latest moves to bury the franchise. With an arena that on many nights is blanketed with empty seats, this move may prove to be the team’s demise. In a recent column, Hockey News columnist Ryan Kennedy opines, “The future is bleak.”

Former GM and Hockey Night in Canada analyst Mike Milbury was highly critical of the Thrashers’ GM, and doesn’t believe Waddell got fair value in return for his star. “I think he misplayed his hand, and I think he badly misplayed his hand,” Milbury said. He went on to say that Waddell has a history of making bad trades.

In a more recent published piece in The Hockey News Rory Boylen explains, “In trading away Kari Lehtonen to the Dallas Stars Tuesday night, the Thrashers have now disconnected themselves from all but one of their six first round draft picks from the first five drafts of the team’s existence.”

That should sound familiar to Detroit Lions fans as they witnessed a similar situation under Matt Millen. Of the first round draft picks for the Lions between 2002-2006, only one player remains on the team and like the Thrashers many of those were high first-rounders.

Waddell jumped into a sort of ‘save face’ mode with a press release last week explaining in detail to the fans and media the millions that were offered and turned down by Kovy and his agent Jay Grossman but that dog and pony show may not go far with the fans here in Atlanta. The bottom line is Teflon Don let the face of his franchise go and could not convince the player to sign on the dotted line.

It has to be embarrassing to the franchise when a player refuses to accept $100 million to play NHL hockey in Atlanta. Shunning an offer of this magnitude speaks volumes and may represent what lack of faith Kovy may have in Waddell’s ability to build a winner.

Normally in sports negotiations, real estate transactions and corporate buyouts when lucrative offers like Kovy’s are put on the table they end up signed and done as long as the people at the top have the ability to close it.

After the trade Waddell had the audacity to say “I don’t think it sets us back at all. I think it moves us forward.”

That statement reminds me of when Millen, who is regarded as one of the most incompetent GMs in NFL history, was asked by the Detroit Free Press about his 0-2 Lions start and their record-setting string of losses under his management, he responded, “What we are doing is the right thing to do . . . stay the course.”

If Waddell truly believes that removing a superstar like Ilya Kovalchuk from the team and replacing him with a rookie who hasn’t scored in 13 games, a draft pick and a few other unproven players, then like Millen it may be time for him to move on. Millen also believed and he said it himself, “My initial thought was this: If you can’t get it done in five years, get out.”Problem in Detroit was, Millen said those words but did not live by them and years later he had to be pried from his seat.

Atlanta fans are experiencing a similar situation where a GM has been granted more than an adequate amount of time to produce a winner and has not.

Waddel made a few more comments that may have the fans shaking their heads. “We’re struggling with our attendance as it is,” said Waddell, whose team is tied 11th in the Eastern Conference standings, just a few points out of playoff spot. “The only way we’re going to bring fans back is by winning hockey games.”

So do you do that by trading away your leading scorer and one of the greatest players in the world?

It’s common for GMs to deal away players for a lot less value if they believe they will not get a deal done in the off-season but this is a case where the team could have kept Kovy and at least tried to make the playoffs then possibly coax him to accept one of the deals that was offered. This would have certainly put more fans in the seats for the remainder of this year, especially if they could have gotten hot like early in the season and gone on even a short playoff run.

Now that Waddell was once again unable to retain a star player, will the ownership have the guts to make the move that many fans in Atlanta (like Detroit with Millen) have been begging for, for years? Millen never willingly agreed to resign and the same is expected of Waddell.

Over the past several years it has been more than challenging for Waddell to get players to sign here even with Kovy on the team. UFA Brian Campbell turned down a reported $60 million contract that Waddell was said to have offered and opted to go to a team located in a snow belt who hadn’t made the playoffs in years.

Last year, that trend looked like it may possibly be changing when having Kovy in a Thrashers’ uniform convinced players like Nik Antropov and Pavel Kubina to lace them up in the south. Now that Kovy is in New Jersey, many people expect these players to move on elsewhere when the opportunity arrives.

Also with Kovalchuk gone there is a strong possibility of losing two other players of the Thrashers Russian trio as well. The Thrashers obtained Maxim Afinogenov for $800,000and after a comeback season that has produced (17g-27a-44pts) ranking him first on the team in scoring, expect him to test the free agent market.

Ex-Red Wing player Slava Kozlov is the other of the trio we should expect to move on and possibly try to follow Kovy. Owning some of the league’s best shootout stats, Kozlov would help whatever team picks him up.

During this roller-coaster week of trade talks and negotiations, Kovalchuk spoke to the media. “You don’t want to be a distraction. We are in a playoff race and we are only one point from the playoffs, said the star winger. “Hopefully, we are going to figure something out.”

Waddell believed Kovy sincerely wanted to stay and said this after trading away the franchise’s best hope, “I think, Kovy right to the last day, wanted to be a Thrasher. But it’s a business decision.”

Yes it was Teflon Don, and a really bad one.

More Thrashers:

Waddell Releases Statement to the Media

Kovalchuk Showing Great Leadership in Atlanta

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Statement from Don Waddell Regarding Ilya Kovalchuk


Below is a statement just released by Atlanta Thrashers GM Don Waddell concerning signing Ilya Kovalchuk:

Our goal from the start of this negotiating process was to sign Ilya Kovalchuk to a long-term contract. During the (AP Photo/John Bazemore)process, Kovy affirmed his desire to be a Thrasher for life. We’ve spent several months exploring scenarios with Kovy and his agent to reach a mutually beneficial agreement, and offered many lucrative packages in an attempt to meet his financial objectives. Unfortunately, we’ve reached an impasse and at this point he has declined all of our proposals and we can’t reasonably go any higher.

Ultimately, we offered Kovy more than $101 million over 12 years, which would have been the highest contract signed by an impending unrestricted free agent in the history of the league. If accepted, this contract would have been the second highest offer ever to any NHL player. We also met his desire to be the highest paid player based on average annual salary with a separate offer of 7 years at $10M per year ($70M). This offer is $0.5M higher per year than any other player.

If we went beyond these offers, we would not be able to retain the young players on our roster when it came time to sign them, or invest in other top tier players needed to assemble a truly competitive team. Therefore, we are aggressively exploring all of our options as we move forward.

Other Thrashers Articles:

Kovalchuk Showing Great Leadership in Atlanta

Atlanta Goalie Allows 180-foot Shot to Score in Loss

Copyright © 2010 – Sports Climax

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Several Reasons For Atlanta Thrashers’ Hot Start


ATLANTA – Riding the wave of a four-game win streak and dramatic last-second victory Monday night against division rival Rich PeverleyFlorida Panthers, the Atlanta Thrashers will be taking a great deal of momentum into their game Thursday night against the New York Islanders at Philips Arena.

The Thrashers under the great leadership of Captain Kovalchuk appear to be adapting to Coach John Anderson’s offensive scheme as the team leads the NHL in goals per game with an impressive 3.46 mark. To put that in perspective, the dominating Detroit Red Wings led the NHL last season with a 3.52.

One of the reasons for the Thrashers hot start is the contribution of several players who were not on the roster at the start of last season.

Three of the top four names found on the team’s current stats sheet are Rich Peverley (10g-16a-26pts), Maxim Afinogenov (11g, 14a, 25pts) and Nik Antropov (2g, 21a, 23pts). Afinogenov scored the game winner with 5 seconds remaining in regulation time in that dramatic win against the Panthers.

Another factor is the impressive play of their youngsters. Nineteen-year-old Zach Bogosian leads the NHL in goals by a defensemen with 8 while eighteen-year-old rookie Evander Kane, another first-round pick, has contributed as well, adding (8g, 5a, 13pts), creating a rookie-of-the-year buzz around the city of Atlanta.

Goaltending is another area the team has improved and they’ve done it without Kari Lehtonen, their starting goaltender over the past few seasons. While Lehtonen continues to recover from an injury that required surgery, back-up goaltenders Johan ‘Moose’ Hedberg and Ondrej Pavelec have been sharing the crease duties.

After registering two shutouts (one each) over the past four games, the Thrashers find themselves in the upper half of the league in goals against average, a vast improvement over the past few years when they hovered near the basement in that category.

Pavelec, who earlier this season allowed a 180-ft shot to score, shut out the Red Wings 2-0 in Detroit while Moose put up a 1-0 goose egg at home against the pesky Philadelphia Flyers. Moose’s win snapped a 14-game winless streak against the Flyers.

Currently the Thrashers own one of the best road records in the NHL at 8-2-1 and find themselves in the 5th position in their conference with several games in hand on the leaders.

To put that in mathematical perspective, if the Thrashers win all four of the games they have in hand on the Stanley Cup champion Pittsburgh Penguins, the Thrashers would find themselves one point ahead of Sid The Kid in the standings; but let’s not get too ahead of ourselves.

More NHL:

Thrashers’ Goalie Pavelec Allows 180-ft Shot to Score (video) – Sports Climax

Captain Kovalchuk Returns Early & Shows Great Leadership –  Sports Climax  

Yahoo!Sports – Puck Daddy

Bill ‘Iceman’ Tiller – Atlanta-Journal-Constitution

Copyright © 2009 – Sports Climax

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Kovalchuk Showing Great Leadership in Atlanta


ATLANTA – Atlanta Thrashers forward Ilya Kovalchuk is having the kind of season that assures him a place among the NHL’s most respected leaders, and I’m not just referring to his sizzling eight-game start.

kovy1Kovalchuk, who started the season with a NHL league-leading 9 goals in his first 8 games, took a puck in the foot that broke a bone.

The injury occurred on October 24th and was expected to sideline the high-flying winger for four-to-six weeks projecting his return in late-November or early December.

This past Tuesday way ahead of schedule, Kovalchuk laced up the skates and joined his teammates for practice.

After testing the foot with a full practice, it was first reported he would join his team for a trip to New York for a game Thursday night against the Rangers. That news changed when the stress of the skate caused a flare-up and signified it was best to let him remain at home in Atlanta for more rest.

Atlanta has been a city that is measuring its rain in feet this year and this week was no exception. The skies again opened up compliments of Hurricane Ida causing delays to the Thrashers’ charter flight.

The delayed take-off gave Kovalchuk a little extra time to reassess his injury. He contacted the team, packed up and raced to Atlanta-Hartsfield to take the flight to New York in hopes of playing at MSG.

Kovalchuk is a superstar who clearly has nothing more to prove to the Thrashers organization or any other team in the league. He is one of the most talented players in the world and if he becomes a free agent, teams will be aggressively bidding on his services like a treasured piece at an auction.

A few weeks ago, during one of the talk shows on Atlanta’s 680 The Fan, the hosts were kicking around rumors the Thrashers had offered Kovalchuk a $100 million contract.

True or not, Kovalchuk is guaranteed one of the highest-paid contracts in the league before the puck drops in October 2010, that is certain, yet he took it upon himself to scramble at the last minute and join the team in New York.

How many star players in the NHL and many of the other professional leagues would have taken the week off with pay?

In an earlier interview with the AJC Thrashers beat writer Chris Vivlamore, Kovalchuk said, “It’s tough to watch from upstairs. It’s tough because you can’t help.”

Kovalchuk has a strong desire to win. He has spoken about it many times over the years but when you witness what we have this season, his performance, his expedited rehab of the injury, his actions speak volumes.

Kovalchuk craves to contribute on the ice, there’s clearly a fire lit and along with the talent comes additional great leadership qualities.

People cringe when Kovalchuk drops his gloves to come to the defense of a teammate; that is not his place on the team. Enforcer Eric Boulton and Chris Thorburn normally oblige to opportunities like that; but that is what great captains and leaders sometimes do.

I remember attending a game in Detroit in 1987 when Red Wing captain Steve Yzerman dropped his gloves to come to the aid of his goaltender after Buffalo tough-guy Kevin Maguire leveled the Red Wings goalie. Red Wings enforcer Bob Probert was on the ice but was held off by the linesmen so Yzerman made his way over to Maguire, threw ‘em down and went a few rounds.

I do not condone players like Kovalchuk and Yzerman risking injury fighting; their place is on the scoring sheet, but again, great leaders step up at unscripted times throughout their careers.

Here’s that Yzerman incident:

 

The Thrashers have a great leader in Kovalchuk. He’s a man with a vision and his leading by example can only benefit this young team.

Whether Kovalchuk skates tonight or not, for unselfish reasons he has shown a burning desire to get back on the ice and lead his team to the next level and bring the NHL Playoffs back to Philips Arena come April 2010. That in itself should be a motivation for the Thrashers in New York tonight.

Editor’s Note: Kovalchuk did play in New York and tallied 1 goal and 2 assists in a 5-3 win for the Thrashers.

Related Articles:

Iceman’s Thrashers’ Blog AJC 

NHL Enforcer Eric Boulton Talks Fight Rule Changes

Thrashers Goalie Allows 180-foot Shot to Score

Exclusive Interview With Scotty Bowman – Fight Rules

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