Commentary

So close, yet so far in Atlanta

Updated: March 24, 2010, 9:45 AM ET
By Scott Burnside | ESPN.com

ATLANTA -- This is life in the shadows of the NHL universe.

The Atlanta Thrashers traded away their lone superstar, Ilya Kovalchuk.

They have endured a six-game, post-Olympic winless streak.

[+] EnlargeTuukka Rask, Colby Armstrong
Scott Cunningham/NHLI/Getty ImagesBruins goalie Tuukka Rask made 27 saves in Tuesday's 4-0 win over the Thrashers.

They have lost promising rookie Evander Kane to injury.

And yet here they were Tuesday night, riding a four-game winning streak, including a weekend sweep of the Philadelphia Flyers.

They were hosting the Boston Bruins, who were in eighth place in the Eastern Conference, one slender point ahead of the Thrashers with 10 games to play. One point.

A franchise that so often has been so far from anything was now so close to something. So close to proving people wrong, to perhaps gaining that all-important foothold in a market that has had so little to hang on to since the Thrashers arrived in 1999.

So close.

And at the risk of sounding like a tattered '80s pop song, the Thrashers were so close. And after a disappointing 4-0 loss to the Bruins on Tuesday, they are so very far.

Around the concourse from the press box here, Thrashers GM Don Waddell could be heard beseeching his players to get off the ice, to pass, to skate. He got so wound up, he rarely sat for more than a few minutes at a time. In Philadelphia on Sunday when the Thrashers beat the Flyers 3-1, Waddell paced the concourse at Wachovia Center, poking his head through openings every few minutes to get a glimpse of the action on the ice.

Waddell has been the GM here since the beginning, presiding over a team whose entire playoff history spans four games. He has watched stars such as Dany Heatley and Marian Hossa and, more recently, Kovalchuk turn their backs on this team, this market.

He is achingly aware (how could he not be?) of what it would mean for this team, left for dead a couple of times this season, to claw its way back into the postseason.

"It's an important year for us," Waddell told ESPN.com on Tuesday night. "It's very important for us to make a big push to make the playoffs, for many reasons."

The night Waddell traded Kovalchuk to the New Jersey Devils for promising rookie forward Niclas Bergfors, defenseman Johnny Oduya, prospect Patrice Cormier and a first-round pick (the Thrashers also threw in defenseman Anssi Salmela), Waddell told his players everyone now expected them to throw in the towel. He told them it was up to them to prove people wrong, to keep pushing forward.

And for the most part -- apart from that six-game skid -- they have done so.

Nik Antropov has been terrific.

Ron Hainsey has taken his game to another level along the blue line.

The night Waddell traded Kovalchuk, he insisted this wasn't the start of a sell-off, the kind of waving of the white flag that takes place in franchises around the NHL every season at the trade deadline. He insisted he would add players, and he was as good as his word.

He did not try to trade top defenseman Pavel Kubina, although Kubina is set to become an unrestricted free agent. He didn't trade Colby Armstrong. He added useful forward Clarke MacArthur from the Buffalo Sabres.

"What I really like is how we've come together as a team," Waddell told ESPN.com on Tuesday night.

Trailing 2-0 midway through the second period Tuesday, Armstrong broke down the right side. Not necessarily gifted with blinding speed, Armstrong struggled to settle the puck. Feeling a Bruins defender closing in, he opted not to shoot but spun and fired a backhand pass into the slot that was gobbled up.

A minute or two later, Bergfors, fourth among all rookie players with 40 points, stole the puck in the Boston zone but was thwarted by Tuukka Rask on successive chances. With 3:05 left in the second, Armstrong was awarded a penalty shot, but his shot glanced off Rask's glove hand and the score remained 2-0.

So close. And yet …

With 3.5 seconds left in the second period, Miroslav Satan deflected a Zdeno Chara point shot past Atlanta netminder Johan Hedberg to make it 3-0. Less than two minutes into the third, Hedberg muffed a long shoot-in and couldn't find the rebound, allowing Steve Begin to pound home the Bruins' fourth goal.

Hedberg is one of just four players left from the Thrashers' lone playoff series against the New York Rangers in spring 2007. Another of them, Slava Kozlov, is rarely in Atlanta's lineup these days.

Before the game, Hedberg spoke of the importance of not looking beyond the game in front of them, not getting caught up in the final stretch run, but he sounded discouraged after this loss.

"They beat us in pretty much every situation," Hedberg said. "They beat us all over the ice."

Thrashers coach John Anderson said before the game that he didn't want to think about the implications of Tuesday's game but rather about how his team was going to play. What he saw was a team that seemed to wilt under the promise of moving into a playoff spot rather than embrace it.

"We looked very nervous with the puck," Anderson said afterward. "We looked young out there, quite honestly. I would say in the two years I've been here, this is probably one of the most meaningful games we've played. We just weren't doing things like we have been the last few games."

Just as the Thrashers have been in this same position periodically over the years (remember in 2006 when they came within one lousy win over a lousy Washington Capitals team of making the playoffs?), we have had this same conversation with Waddell over the years about the importance of making the playoffs, of making a run.

Against the backdrop of the Kovalchuk trade and repeated rumors (most baseless, by the way) that the team will soon be on the move to Winnipeg or Kansas or points elsewhere, depending on the source, this season is neither more nor less impassioned, neither more nor less shot through with a sense of urgency.

The reality is it's been touch-and-go time for the franchise for years now; every opportunity to make a statement has been a crucial one, and, for the most part, the team has failed to make good on those opportunities.

Despite the team's four-game run back into the thick of the Eastern Conference playoff race, there were great open sections of seats at both ends of Philips Arena on Tuesday. The announced attendance was 14,042. Fans here will need more than a four-game winning streak to get them to buy in.

"We need to win 'em back," Waddell said simply.

It is not the first time he has said that or something similar. And every time he says it, he is right. It's not over, of course. The one-sided loss, with so much on the line, stings.

But the Toronto Maple Leafs come to town Thursday, and the Thrashers have a home-and-home against the Carolina Hurricanes this weekend. They remain just three points behind Boston with nine games to play. Philadelphia lost again Tuesday, and the Flyers are just four points ahead of Atlanta.

"We've got to let go of tonight pretty quick," Hainsey said.

And perhaps the Thrashers once again will defy the odds, the skeptics and their own history and regroup, start a fresh charge toward an unexpected playoff berth.

Still, as the players headed for the showers and the Bruins headed toward their charter, it was hard not to think again that this was a franchise that came this close to something and somehow, once again, found itself so far from anywhere.

Scott Burnside covers the NHL for ESPN.com.