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.
Johan Hedberg was touched by his welcome back to Philips tonight:
“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.