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Thrashers' Ilya Kovalchuk says 'This is our year'

Saturday, 10.03.2009 / 5:21 AM / News

Associated Press

ATLANTA (AP) -Thrashers coach John Anderson says Atlanta's success this season might depend on the play of their goaltenders.

Some things never change.

The Thrashers, who have sought stability in the net through much of their first decade, open their ninth season on Saturday night with a new twist on the chronic concern.

With Kari Lehtonen recovering from back surgery and still unable to participate in team drills, the Thrashers will open the season with 22-year-old Ondrej Pavelec as their starting goalie. Pavelec spent most of the last two seasons with AHL Chicago. Veteran Johan Hedberg is the backup.

"(Pavelec) played very good at Chicago and now he's ready for the big leagues," Thrashers captain Ilya Kovalchuk said. "Kari is hurt but hopefully he'll be back soon. Our goaltending will be OK."

There is no timetable on Lehtonen's return, so the goaltending question could linger indefinitely.

Anderson, entering his second season as coach, and general manager Don Waddell hope for a quicker resolution to attempts to re-sign Kovalchuk.

Kovalchuk is the team's biggest star and one of the league's top scorers. He is entering the final year of his contract and could become an unrestricted free agent in July.

Waddell said this summer he intended to reach a new deal with Kovalchuk before the season. That hasn't happened, but Kovalchuk said this week he remains hopeful.

"I didn't put any pressure on them and they didn't put any pressure on me," Kovalchuk said. "Hopefully we'll get it done some time."

The Thrashers have two straight fourth-place finishes in the Southeast Division after winning the division and making their only playoff appearance in 2007.

Kovalchuk says there is enough talent to return to the playoffs this season.

"This is our year," Kovalchuk said this week. "We are a very competitive team."

The top returning scorers with Kovalchuk are Slava Kozlov, Todd White, Bryan Little and Colby Armstrong.

"I'm pretty optimistic," Anderson said. "I don't think the goal scoring, hopefully, will be a problem. I think we'll have a lot of good offense. I think we'll be good defensively, too. It comes down to our goaltending. .. If we get some great goaltending, we can do some damage."

Atlanta added center Nik Antropov, coming off a career-best season with 28 goals and 59 points, and defenseman Pavel Kubina in the offseason. Each bring needed size to Atlanta's roster and boosted Kovalchuk's hopes the Thrashers can make their second playoff appearance this season.

"The best move was to bring the two big guys," Kovalchuk said. "We needed a big defensman and a big forward. We've got two very good experienced players."

The veterans complement such young defensemen as 18-year-old Evander Kane, the fourth overall pick in the June draft; 19-year-old Zach Bogosian, the third overall pick in 2008; and 24-year-old Tobias Enstrom, who had 32 points last season.

Bogosian was named one of four alternate captains.

"You have a nice bunch of young guys, skilled guys and I think pretty good veterans," Antropov said. "It's a pretty good mix so hopefully we can get together as a team and get some wins down the road."

Right winger Chris Thornburn says this year's team has the best chance of making the playoffs in his three years with the team.

"I think we have to," Thornburn said of the playoff hopes. "I think this is our best chance of getting there since I've been here."

Thornburn said Antropov and Kubina "add different elements to our offense we haven't had in the past" and could take some scoring pressure off Kovalchuk.

But Kovalchuk, who led the team with 43 goals and 91 points last season, is still the top threat.

"He's still going to tee it up. We need him to," Thornburn said. "He's definitely going to get his share of points, but hopefully it's going to be well spread throughout the lineup."

The key is keeping Kovalchuk in the lineup.

Atlanta fans saw the team forced to trade another All-Star forward, Marian Hossa, in 2008. It would be a more devastating blow if the team cannot keep Kovalchuk.

Pavelec, a second-round pick in 2005, could be more than a temporary fill-in for the oft-injured Lehtonen if he can take advantage of the opportunity.

Pavelec had a 3.59 goals allowed average in his three preseason starts, similar to his 3.61 mark while posting a 3-7 record last season. He ended the preseason with an ugly 5-1 loss to Tampa Bay but will look for a good start when the two Southeast Division rivals play in Saturday night's season opener.

"Five goals is five goals," Pavelec said. "It wasn't a game I would remember but it's the preseason and hopefully we will be ready for the first game."

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