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Atlanta starts over after losing first 6 games, firing Hartley

NHL.com @NHL

ATLANTA (AP) -Welcome to opening night in Atlanta, Part II.

The Thrashers are taking a do-over, so don't even bring up the past two weeks. They're hoping a new coach, a more relaxed attitude and a few tweaks here and there will help them resemble a playoff team again.

So far, so good.

One day after firing coach Bob Hartley, the Thrashers returned to the ice Thursday and picked up their first win of the season, beating the New York Rangers 5-3.

"We're in a tough situation, but it's not critical yet," said Slava Kozlov, one of two holdovers from the last coaching change in Atlanta. "Right now, we're so tight. It's in our heads. We just need to relax and play the game. Get some excitement. Have some fun on the ice."

The Thrashers were not having much fun under Hartley, whose demise likely started with a four-game sweep by the Rangers in last season's playoffs. Then, Atlanta lost its first six games this season - two of them blowouts - which prompted general manager Don Waddell to take over as interim coach.

Every other team in the NHL had at least two wins before the Thrashers finally got their first.

"When you're 0-6, you've got to put that behind you," Waddell said after the win. "If you're trying to fight uphill, it looks like a mountain. I never even mentioned it to the guys."

During the morning skate, the Thrashers did seem a lot looser than they were under Hartley, an intense, hard-nosed coach who seemed to lose touch with the veterans and only made the team more uptight as the losses piled up.

Waddell joked around with a few players while letting assistant coaches Steve Weeks and Brad McCrimmon run most of the drills. Late in the 45-minute session, Ilya Kovalchuk and Chris Thorburn held a mock celebration after knocking the puck into the net, an indication of the more relaxed mind-set that Waddell was hoping to see.

"From my own experience, it always helps when you make trades or change coaches," Kozlov said. "I hope it's going to take the pressure off. We're so tight right now. We cannot score. We cannot make plays. Everybody is afraid to make a mistake."

The only bad news to come from the first win was an injury to No. 1 goalie Kari Lehtonen, who left 8 1/2 minutes into the opening period with another groin problem. He will undergo an MRI in the next day or two but Waddell didn't sound hopeful of a quick recovery.

"Certainly, he'll be out a while," Waddell said.

As for the coaching search, he's already heard from some 30 potential candidates or their agents, even getting a couple of phone calls from Europe. He hasn't put a timetable on finding Hartley's successor, though the only other coaching shake-up in Atlanta might provide some guidance.

Curt Fraser, the first coach in team history, was fired in December 2002 after three-plus losing seasons. Waddell went behind the bench for 10 games, going 4-5-1, before hiring Hartley, who had coached a Stanley Cup winner in Colorado.

"I came up with a pretty good choice last time," Waddell said. "We'll come up with the right guy eventually."

The Thrashers won the Southeast Division last season to earn their first playoff appearance. But they were wiped out by the Rangers, and the hangover from that stunningly quick end to the season seemed to carry over to the new year.

Through their first half-dozen games, the Thrashers ranked last in the NHL in both scoring (1.5 goals per game) and goals against (4.5). They were 28th out of 30 teams on both the power play and killing penalties.

Most troubling to Waddell was the play of the team's most important players. Marian Hossa, coming off a 100-point season, had one goal and no assists in his first three games, sitting out three others with a groin injury. Kozlov managed just two points in his first six games, after tallying a career-best 80 last year.

Both scored against the Rangers, with Hossa also earning an assist on Kozlov's goal.

Waddell also intends to give more playing time to stars such as Kovalchuk, Hossa and Kozlov, hoping that will lead to more puck control rather than just dumping and chasing - and losing.

"We've got so many new and skilled guys, we need to have the puck," Hossa said. "If we have the puck on our sticks, it's going to be hard for the other team to score."

Hossa played a season-high 22 minutes, 48 seconds in his second game back from the groin injury, while Kovalchuk logged 20:41 of ice time.

"I've always believed, even during my years coaching in the International League, that the more your best players are on the ice, the better chance you have of success," Waddell said. "When you're on the attack and trying to score goals, it keeps the other teams a little more on their toes."

Clearly, the Thrashers were tired of being back on their heels.

"We're all very aware of the situation we're in," captain Bobby Holik said. "No message needs to be sent. We all know where we are. We all need to get better."

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