Unified Thrashers finding success
A quick glance at the Atlanta Thrashers' stat sheet might suggest more of the same for the beleaguered Southern franchise.
Bryan Little, a 31-goal scorer last season, has just two so far.
Nik Antropov, an offseason free-agent acquisition, has yet to score.
Ilya Kovalchuk missed six games with a broken right foot.
Former franchise netminder Kari Lehtonen hasn't been on the ice in months with a recurring back problem.
So why is sophomore coach John Anderson bearing such a wide grin to go with the scraggly mustache/beard he's growing as part of a local charity project? Maybe because all of a sudden the sum of the parts in the Georgia capital finally appears greater than the parts themselves.
When the Thrashers take the ice Thursday night against the visiting Boston Bruins, they will put a four-game winning streak on the line. They earned their 10th win of the season Sunday against Edmonton and are just shy of the franchise-record pace set in 2006-07, when they won their first Southeast Division crown and qualified for the playoffs for the first and only time.
The 10-6-1 Thrashers, who have played fewer games than any other NHL team, find themselves firmly entrenched in the Eastern Conference playoff picture at the quarter pole in spite of the aforementioned setbacks, suggesting this franchise has turned a corner.
"Can you imagine if we start hitting on all cylinders?" Anderson asked. "I love this team, I love what we've done so far, but I don't believe we've gotten to the point where I'm going, 'Boy, I really like this.' There's still lots of things we're working on. If we're talking about just scoring, if we do hit on all cylinders, we'll be a very, very dangerous team."
Little has sat out the past two games with a sore groin but could be back in the lineup Thursday. Likewise Pavel Kubina, a major offseason piece added by Thrashers GM Don Waddell who sat out Sunday's game with a lower-body issue.
Rich Peverley, waived by Nashville last season, continues to be one of the great Cinderella stories in the league, as he leads the team and is tied for ninth in NHL scoring with 23 points.
Kovalchuk, who was named captain last season, believes this is the best Thrashers team top to bottom that he's been on since joining the team in 2001. "Yeah, that's for sure. I think it started in training camp," Kovalchuk told ESPN.com.
The talented winger has eight points in three games since his Nov. 12 return to the lineup, and he understands the importance of the team's continuing to make progress for the health of a franchise that has yet to win a single playoff game since coming into the league in 1999.
"I think that's the key, because if we're not going to make the playoffs, it's going to be disaster. We've got a great team that management did a great job to sign guys, to bring back guys, to draft guys. Now it's all about us," Kovalchuk said.
One of the keys to the Thrashers' first-quarter success -- they are the only NHL team with a perfect record (7-0) when scoring first and own an impressive 6-2-1 road record -- has been the consistent goaltending provided by Ondrej Pavelec and Johan Hedberg.
With Lehtonen out long-term with a second back surgery, the Thrashers, historically among the worst defensive teams in the NHL, have managed to settle in the middle of the pack (18th) in goals allowed per game. They also rank fourth in penalty killing, another indication of the team's strong goaltending and overall improved team defense.
"That's why I have a hat; I pull the name out to see who's playing," Anderson joked about his methodology for selecting a netminder.
Look for Pavelec, who last started Friday in a 7-0 shutout of the Los Angeles Kings, to start Thursday. Hedberg, who has won three straight starts, likely will get the nod Saturday against his former team, the Pittsburgh Penguins.
The Bruins, meanwhile, arrive in Atlanta to begin a four-game road trip still trying to shake off a puzzling malaise that has seen them stagger through the first quarter of the season with an ordinary 8-8-4 record. Boston, which finished first in the Eastern Conference last season with a 53-19-10 record and was dominant both offensively and defensively, has managed to win two in a row only once this season and carries a three-game losing streak. The Bruins have lost six of eight, and veteran winger Mark Recchi said the first quarter has been a challenge.
"I don't think we were prepared for how hard it was going to be again," Recchi told ESPN.com.
Injuries obviously have taken their toll, as key offensive components Marc Savard and Milan Lucic both have missed considerable time. Savard skated Thursday morning, but it's expected he'll be held out of the lineup for at least one more game and will miss playing against his former team. Lucic did not skate Thursday morning but is expected to play.
"We've got to stay with it," Recchi said.
Scott Burnside covers the NHL for ESPN.com.
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