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So, Eric Boulton has a hat trick, and Rich Peverley gets into a fight. Needless to say, last night was an interesting game.
The Greek Gods reigned supreme tonight. Much attention was given to the return of former Thrasher captain Ilya Kovalchuk, but tonight was not his night. The Thrashers had a crowd of 17,024 to entertain, and they did their job well.
The New Jersey Devils entered tonight’s game with a 9-20-2 record, and only four wins on the road. They began the game listless and defeated, which was ultimately how the game ended. Martin Brodeur was given the start, despite it being widely expected that Johan Hedberg would get the call.
10:56 into the first period, Ron Hainsey began the scoring barrage that would get Moose into the game after all. Hainsey finally scored his first goal of the night on a wrister from the left face-off dot assisted by Brent Sopel and Nik Antropov. Martin Brodeur was down and recovering from a rebound that he launched directly to Hainsey, and had no chance to stop the shot.
A little under five minutes later, Eric Boulton scored his second of the year and first of the night. He surprised Brodeur low glove side on a quick snap into the net, courtesy of a behind the net pass from Chris Thorburn. Thirty-eight seconds later, Evander Kane scored his eleventh goal of the season.
Andrew Ladd also scored his eleventh goal of the season, beating Brodeur high glove side. This began the calls of “We want Hedberg” from the fans in the stands, and Devils coach John MacLean was more than happy to oblige. Moose made it out of the second period unscathed, but Ondrej Pavelec did not. Pavs allowed his only goal of the game to Ilya Kovalchuk on the powerplay. Kovalchuk was out there for four of the seven goals against, however, so his evening ended with a -3 rating overall, making him a -20 for the season.
“It was very emotional, very touching,” Hedberg said. “The crowd, I thought that was very nice of them.”
The third period, however, Hedberg was challenged by two long-time teammates in Eric Boulton and Chris Thorburn. Both being the two Thrashers who had played with Moose the longest (aside from Jim Slater) might have given them a bit of an advantage. Boulton scored on a reviewed call at 4:07 in, where he slid the puck past Hedberg right before the net was off of it’s pipes – it was bent over Hedberg, but not off of the posts. Almost thirteen minutes later, Moose was a victim of another one of his trademarked bad bounces. Attempting to play the puck off of the boards, the puck caromed directly to Eric Boulton, who promptly did this for the first time in his career:
A Thrashers player hadn’t scored a hat trick at Philips Arena since December 26th, 2008.
Just two minutes later, Thorburn put the final, seventh nail in the coffin. After the concluding horn, the PA announcer mentioned the score of the Washington Capitals/Boston Bruins game – a 3-2 loss by the Caps put the Thrashers in first place for the first time since October 10th, 2008. Philips Arena absolutely erupted.
The Thrashers are continuing their excellent team play while the Devils are still struggling. Kovalchuk was especially irritated after tonight’s loss, saying “Yeah, I mean, what do you think? We’re still 100 points out of the playoffs.” If the Devils continue playing the way that they have been playing, that might be the understatement of the year.
Tonight was not a night to worry about Kovalchuk though; tonight’s a game to celebrate the hardest working line in hockey, the Greek God line of Boulton, Slater, and Thorburn, who had four goals and three assists between them, and finished +3, +4, and +4 on the night, respectively. And, lost in the excitement of taking sole possession of first place, Ondrej Pavelec stopped 26 of 27 shots for his tenth win of the season. Pavs is now second in the league behind Tim Thomas of the Boston Bruins in both save percentage (.944) and goals against average (1.76).
The Thrashers hope to continue their dominant ways when the St. Louis Blues come to town Tuesday night. The Blues are fighting the injury bug and might well be icing half of the Peoria Rivermen on Tuesday night, but they still have the always excellent Jaroslav Halak up their sleeve.
The Thrashers were kind enough to extend the invitation to bloggers today to watch the Thrashers’ morning skate. A few quick observations:
The lower “impact” drills and practice were taking place on Ondrej Pavelec’s end of the ice – more one-on-one shooting drills, while Chris Mason dealt with the up close scrimmaging drills. Bogosian worked extensively solo on his shooting from the blue-line. He’s got a booming slap-shot that shows when he’s alone on the ice – not that it doesn’t show when he’s not alone. He seemed very focused in working on his shot. Apparently his overtime winner last week has sparked his motivation to repeat that again.
Chris Thorburn also worked on his slapshot, which flew over the net initially until he caught his focus and netted four pucks in a row.
After an off game on Thursday night which saw Peverley go just 11-for-21 on the face-off, he got some extra attention at center ice with Jim Slater to practice. Slater was two for three on offensive zone faceoffs on Thursday, and went 7-for-11 overall.
Freddy Meyer stayed one end of the ice for some one time practice during the end of the morning skate. Meyer won’t get a chance to see ice time tonight, but Tim Stapleton and Freddy Modin will. Coach Craig Ramsay was disappointed in their play again on Thursday night, which wound up earning eager seventeen minutes of penalties and just 6:22 of ice time. Bergfors had just 7:40 of time. When asked by the AJC’s Chris Vivlamore about the scratching, Ramsay said:
“We need to compete as a team,” Ramsay said. “We need to hold onto the puck in the offensive zone and we have to be good in our zone. It’s expected from everybody.”
I don’t think that ill-advised fights were on Ramsay’s to-do list for Ben Eager.
When I can get the interviews from this morning transcribed, I will have a write up on here – it will be post-game, though.
Chances are fairly strong that former Thrashers back-up of four years, Johan Hedberg, will be the Devils' starting goaltender tonight. Martin Brodeur was in goal last night for the Devils in their 3-1 loss to the Nashville Predators. The three goals Brodeur allowed on just twenty shots were all immensely stoppable. Moose fairs about the same as Brodeur in goal, so it's not like the Thrashers are getting either an upgrade or a downgrade in goaltending by having to face Hedberg in net. Compare:
|2010 - Martin Brodeur||21||1156||5||13||52||2.70||525||473||.901||3|
|2010 - Johan Hedberg||13||592||4||6||29||2.94||304||275||.905||1|
Moose actually has a slightly higher save percentage, and has lost half of the games that Brodeur has (granted, he's also played half of the minutes). Hedberg might actually be advantageous for the Devils' to play tonight, considering he knows a lot of the individual players' on the Thrashers tendencies. Again, half the team is new, so he won't be able to read them much like they might not be able to read him. The key, though, to beating Moose is to screen him and shoot from the circles back - this should be completely do-able for the Thrashers
The Thrashers will be starting Ondrej Pavelec tonight - Chris Mason was the last goalie off ice this morning at morning skate. Pavs is still playing outstanding hockey, winning seven of his last 10 starts (and losing two in overtime):
|2010 - Ondrej Pavelec||21||1166||10||6||35||1.80||617||582||.943||2|
The Devils have issues scoring regardless of who they're playing against - they're dead last in the league with just 1.77 goals a game. In contrast, they allow 2.9 goals a game. Pavelec won't make their problems any easier.
All time, the Thrashers are 5-13-2-0 against the Devils at Philips Arena, and New Jersey has a six game winning streak against the Thrashers. Tonight would be the perfect night to end that streak. Note to Thrashers fans, though - don't start cheering and heckling until after the game: the Hockey Gods don't like hubris. Obviously.
This has not been the season that Ilya Kovalchuk envisioned. After being traded to the New Jersey Devils on February 4th for Johnny Oduya, Niclas Bergfors, Patrice Cormier, and New Jersey's first and second round picks in the 2010 draft (along with Anssi Salmela), Kovalchuk hasn't exactly been a successful addition to the Devils' line-up. He scored 10 goals and 17 assists after the trade to the Devils, and finished an impressive +9. Bergfors scored 8 goals and 9 assists, almost replacing Kovalchuk's goal output for the rest of the season.
Everyone knows about the Ilya Kovalchuk saga over the summer. It took a month past the trade deadline for Kovalchuk to sign a deal with the Devils that the NHL promptly investigated for cap circumvision. Apparently 17 years is too long, but 15 is ok. Of course, it also helps when the contract has the money spread out fairly evenly over those 15 years, instead of paying the player league minimum for the last few years. Kovalchuk and the Devils both expected him to be the offensive lynchpin of a line-up that didn't exactly lack for scorers.
Thrashers fans, while the Kovalchuk saga was playing out, were enjoying the rewards of a blockbuster trade with Chicago which brought Dustin Byfuglien, Brent Sopel, and Ben Eager to Atlanta - a trade that included both of those former Devils draft slots.
Instead of booing Kovalchuk tonight, maybe Thrashers fans should be thanking him. His leaving gave the Thrashers important pieces of the team's future in Bergfors and Cormier, a solid defenseman in Oduya, and winning pieces in Byfuglien, Eager, and Sopel. The hockey team is more team focused and has more team accountability, and the lack of Kovalchuk gives the team more flexibility for an offensive game-plan that is not predictable. There's no coincidence that the Thrashers powerplay is currently the fifth best in the league now without him. The pass-pass-pass-Kovalchuk shot gameplan that every team knew and broke up is out the window.
Ilya Kovalchuk is currently 130th in the league in goals scored. As of December 15th, 31 defensemen had more points than he did. I don't hear many Thrashers fans bemoaning Don Waddell's decision to trade him anymore.
Someone that I do hear Thrashers fans bemoaning the loss of is former back-up goaltender Johan Hedberg. Moose played four seasons with the Thrashers, the longest tenure of any team he was with. Last season he put up career numbers, going 21-16-6 with a 2.62 GAA and a .905 SV%. Unfortunately, the team couldn't reach an agreement with Hedberg and his agent, Jay Grossman (also Ilya Kovalchuk and Anssi Salmela's agent), and Moose signed in New Jersey with Kovalchuk and Salmela. Moose's luck this year is the same as the Devils' - he has a 4-6-1 record with a 2.93 GAA and a .900 SV%.
Hedberg should get a warm welcome Saturday night from the Atlanta fans. Kovalchuk? The jury's out on that one, but seeing as how the Thrashers have been so successful since the trade, maybe a fruit basket is in order.
"Obviously, it would be a special feeling going back there after four years there," he said. "I still know most of the guys there. That’s always special. But I approach every game the same. It wouldn’t be any different from that standpoint."
Hedberg said he still keeps in touch with "a few of the guys" in Atlanta, most notably fellow Swede Tobias Enstrom. He is happy to see the Thrashers, who are 17-11-5, having some success this season. They’ve made the playoffs only once in their first 10 seasons of existence.
"I think it could be a really good hockey market," Hedberg said of Atlanta. "A lot of things have been happening over the year. When I was there, two or three years they really struggled. I think fans wherever you are want to see a winner and if they’re a successful franchise (on the ice), I’m sure they’re going to draw well."
"A lot of people left and a lot of new people came in and they have a new coaching staff," Hedberg said. "It seems like they’ve got everything in order and I’ve only heard positive things. They’re definitely a team on the rise. We’re going to be in for a tough game there."
Kovalchuk had this to add:
"It’s nice," said Kovalchuk, who was drafted first overall by the Thrashers in 2001. "They made a lot of changes there and it’s worked out good for them. I had a good eight years there and they did everything they could for me to make it feel like home."