Thrashers Perspective

December In Review

The Eastern Conference’s second-strongest team had yet another eventful December, twice tying the franchise record for consecutive wins yet coming up short in a handful of key match-ups.

The Atlanta Thrashers posted wins in five consecutive games Dec. 19-27, defeating New Jersey and Pittsburgh twice and Tampa Bay once. That came after they defeated Florida and Toronto twice and the Rangers once Nov. 25-Dec. 5.

Following a 6-0 drubbing by the New York Islanders that capped a five-game losing streak, the players held a closed-door meeting. The team responded with five wins in a row for the second time this season and only the third time in franchise history.

Most importantly, the team managed to increase its lead over the Southeast Division’s second-place team, the Carolina Hurricanes, to eight points as of Jan. 3.

The key has been Kari Lehtonen’s revitalized play. Lehtonen finished December with a 6-3 won-lost record, a 2.67 GAA mark and a .922 save percentage. The numbers don’t tell the whole story. Often, Lehtonen single-handedly kept Atlanta in tight games with huge saves.

Luckily for the Thrashers, their schedule will get somewhat easier in January.

The team will play the suddenly cooling Montreal Canadiens twice, as well the Devils, Flyers and Islanders twice each and the Kings once.

The team will have to get its special teams in order to continue its winning ways. The power play, which averaged 20.9 percent the first 20 games of the season, shrunk to just 14.8 percent over the last 22 games of 2006. More urgently, the penalty kill has slipped all the way to 27th in the league, averaging 79.5 percent. That can’t cut it when the team ranks in the top 10 in times shorthanded.

As the Big Three Go…

The Thrashers’ top three scorers, Marian Hossa, Slava Kozlov and Ilya Kovalchuk, continue to play a crucial role in the team’s success.

Hossa kept pace with Sidney Crosby in the race for the scoring title and was only five points behind the phenom from Pittsburgh. He is also just one goal behind league-leaders Martin St. Louis and Alexander Ovechkin.

During the team’s five-game losing streak, Hossa had just one goal. In the Thrashers’ subsequent five-game win streak, he had two goals and eight assists.

The team is 10-1-1 when Kozlov scores a goal. The crafty Russian leads the team and is tied for third in the league with five game-winning goals and is five-for-six in shootout attempts, which is also near the top of the league.
In Thrashers wins, Kovalchuk has 17 goals and 17 assists and is +11. In losses, he has just four goals and five assists, and is -13.

But consider this: After the top three, nobody on the team has even half as many points.

The Thrashers must find a way to get offense from other sources, even if it means making a deal before the Feb. 27 trading deadline.

Opportunity Knocks
The status of defenseman Shane Hnidy coming into the season was uncertain. Now he sits second on the Thrashers in plus/minus.

An injury to defenseman Andy Sutton and an illness to Garnet Exelby opened the door for Hnidy to break into the lineup, where he’s made it his personal mission to stay.
So far, so good.

The former journeyman defenseman has seen his ice time increase dramatically after being paired with Niclas Havelid, the team’s top defenseman.

Hnidy, who went 202 games without a goal, has already matched his career high in goals with three and points with nine. Two of those points were back-to-back game-winners, as he scored the game-winner against New Jersey on Dec. 23 and set up the game-winner Dec. 26 against Tampa Bay.

Kovalchuk Not Seeing Red

Kovalchuk went through an uncharacteristic cold slump in December, finishing with just four goals, three of which were empty-netters. Kovalchuk also finished the month -5, dropping his plus/minus rating for the season to -1.

Not quite what you’d expect from a former Rocket Richard Trophy-winner.

Still, Thrashers coach Bob Hartley said he isn’t worried about his star player.

“He’s playing a good game on both sides of the puck, and I’m sure he’s going to score the big ones for us,”

Hartley told the Atlanta Journal-Constitution.
Kovalchuk picked up seven assists in December, matching his output for November.


Injuries Still a Factor
Although the Thrashers started to get healthier by the end of the year, the team had almost an entire forward line on injured reserve for a time in December. Center Steve Rucchin (hip) and winger Scott Mellanby (shoulder) joined winger Brad Larsen (wrist) and defensemen Andy Sutton (ankle) and Exelby (mononucleosis) in the press box for a few games. In their place, Atlanta called up Jason Krog and Derek MacKenzie, although the latter saw limited action and is now back with the AHL’s Chicago Wolves.
The only thing missing from the Thrashers’ injuries was -- ironically after last seasons netminder woes -- a goaltender.

But please don’t mention that to Hartley or the Thrashers’ training staff.

Thrashers Come Up Short In Their “Big Games”
Even though two of the games were closer than the final scores indicate, the three big tests for the Thrashers in December and right after the first of the year all ended up as losses. Certainly, games against Anaheim and Buffalo, the two top teams in the NHL, and a road game against Minnesota, who have the best home record in the NHL, are a good measuring stick for the challenges the Thrashers would face in the playoffs.

Ultimately, the Thrashers fell 2-1 at home to Anaheim Dec. 15 and 4-1 at Buffalo on Dec. 30, spoiling two solid skating efforts. Although the Thrashers were outworked in their 5-1 loss in Minnesota Jan. 2, Lehtonen kept the game from getting out of hand until the third period.




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