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Antropov discovers scoring touch at right time

by John Manasso
ATLANTA -- For the first 17 games of the season, Thrashers center Nik Antropov concentrated on adjusting to his new team and setting up linemate Ilya Kovalchuk, one of the League's top goal scorers.

Antropov also did not score. That could be quite a burden for a team's top free-agent signee, but since the 6-foot-6 giant with the pass-first mentality was piling up the assists, he didn't let it bother him.

Now, with Kovalchuk gone via trade and the Thrashers in desperate pursuit of a playoff berth, they have needed someone to help fill that goal-scoring void.

And fill it Antropov has. In his last 50 games, he has 22 goals, including five in the last four games -- during which Atlanta is 3-0-1 and has snuck back into the playoff race, just one point behind Boston for the Eastern Conference's eighth and final spot heading into Sunday's games.

The Thrashers visit Philadelphia on Sunday night in the second half of a home-and-home series, perhaps with the chance to jump into the top eight for the first time in almost two weeks, pending the outcome of the Bruins' game with the New York Rangers.

"I think we are playing with a lot of confidence," goalie Johan Hedberg said. "We are getting a lot of scoring here the last few nights and obviously that's going to help your confidence. Nik's been unbelievable here and [Colby Armstrong]'s really coming on strong. Guys we need to put the pucks in the net are. And the defense is just playing great."

The modest Antropov seems almost embarrassed by the attention, hardly offering any explanation on his behalf as to why his goal-scoring has increased so dramatically.

All season long, Thrashers coach John Anderson has impressed upon Antropov the need to shoot more. Antropov concedes that he has, but he doesn't think it has coincided with the Kovalchuk trade.

The statistics, however, indicate something different. Before the trade, Antropov averaged 1.49 shots per game (76 in 51 games). Since, he has averaged 2.25 (36 in 16 games) -- an increase of 50 percent. He also has nine of his 22 goals post-Kovalchuk.

"I've liked him all year," said Anderson, who has used Antropov's sky-darkening form to positive effect by stationing him in front of the net on the power play to screen opposing goalies. "I know he was off to a slow start scoring goals, but, again, I think that was because he was trying to feed Kovy so much. But he's been great all year for us and certainly our biggest plus-minus player, too."

On a team that has yielded 14 more goals than it has scored, Antropov is plus-17.

"It's not important to me," Antropov said of individual accolades. "The goal we set at the beginning of the season was to make the playoffs. This is just secondary, the personal stuff."

One can only wonder if Antropov grew weary of the withering attention all players in Toronto receive after nine years playing there. A player with such physical gifts and drafted highly (No. 10 in 1998) often became the target of the fan's and media's frustration for seemingly underachieving.

Nonetheless, Antropov said the only difference in terms of playing in Atlanta is that he is not recognized outside the rink in the same way he was while playing in the Center of the Hockey Universe.

"I played in the NHL for 10 years, I know exactly what's going on," Antropov said. "It's the same thing, just less media. That's the only thing. Otherwise, it's the same thing. The NHL is the NHL."

With the NHL being the NHL, Antropov is certain to garner more of the Flyers' focus on Sunday. Coach Peter Laviolette appeared to try to match Mike Richards, a finalist last season for the Selke Trophy, given to the League's top defensive forward, against Antropov's line with Niclas Bergfors and Maxim Afinogenov. As the visitor, Laviolette did not have the final change.

At home, he will. The Thrashers are expecting another physical game after Saturday's 5-2 victory that included two fights.

"Well, you know if you're playing against [Flyers winger] Scott Hartnell, you know you're going to see him and his big hair in the crease all night," Hedberg said. "He's a good player. He's got a lot of energy. They have quite a few of those and they whack away at rebounds and screen and tip, so [defensemen] and myself and forwards, too, for their sake, try to be really strong in the shooting lanes and box out and clean the rebounds out."

With his team-best plus-minus, Antropov is one of those boxing out and clearing rebounds. He also isn't afraid to mix it up. He took a roughing call on Hartnell on Saturday after a scrum in front of the net, with Hartnell in turn taking a slashing penalty.

After saying that the Thrashers "walked with a really good swagger" on Saturday, Laviolette is sure to have his Flyers ready. Antropov and the Thrashers know it.

"They always play like that," Antropov said after Saturday's victory. "Every single game you play them, especially (Sunday) night. It's going to be even more intense. They play really hard in front of their fans, but we're ready for that. We're desperate for points right now and it's a good win for us."

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