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Atlanta Thrashers vs. Florida Panthers @NHLdotcom
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GAME: Atlanta Thrashers (33-37-8-4) at Florida Panthers (28-35-15-4).

TIME: Wednesday, 7 p.m. EDT.

Less than two hours into the free agency period, the Florida Panthers locked up two quality players. With the regular season about to start, the Atlanta Thrashers are still trying to sign their star.

The Thrashers' window to sign Ilya Kovalchuk will likely end Wednesday, when they open the season against the retooled Panthers.

Florida made a splash less than two hours into the free agency period by signing Joe Nieuwendyk and Gary Roberts.

Atlanta, meanwhile, has yet to sign Kovalchuk, a 41-goal scorer in 2003-04 before the lockout. His agent says Kovalchuk might continue to play in his native Russia if a deal can't be worked out with Atlanta.

The team is running out of time, facing an important deadline on Wednesday. If Kovalchuk plays a game in Russia after Wednesday, he would have to clear waivers to return to Atlanta this season.

"Twenty-nine other teams would have to pass on him," Atlanta GM Don Waddell said. "That's never going to happen."

If Kovalchuk sits out games in Russia, he would have until Dec. 1 to agree on a contract with the Thrashers to play in the NHL this season.

Kovalchuk will be in Atlanta this week to see his new daughter, and Waddell hopes to meet with the holdout forward during his visit.

"I think things will start to shake out in the next little while," Waddell said Monday. "It wouldn't be so much to hammer out a deal. I want to explain to him where we're headed as a franchise. I know he wants to play for a winning team. I think we've made good changes to do that. I'd like to sit down and talk with him if possible."

Atlanta would be stronger with Kovalchuk, one of the league's most dynamic offensive players and someone who would surely thrive in the post-lockout NHL, with all the new rules that are designed to open up the game and produce more scoring chances.

"Ilya makes us a better team," Waddell said. "But with the other pieces we've put in place, we're confident that we're ready to take that next step."

Unrestricted free agent Peter Bondra signed a one-year contract with the Thrashers on Oct. 16. The 37-year-old Bondra, only 23 goals shy of 500 in his career, split the 2003-04 season between the Washington Capitals and Ottawa Senators. He had 26 goals and 23 assists in 77 games.

Atlanta was looking to upgrade its depth up front - especially with Kovalchuk not with the team. In his prime, Bondra was one of the league's most gifted scorers. He led the NHL with 52 goals in both 1995-96 and 97-98 while with the Capitals. Two other times, he surpassed 40 goals.

Bondra believes the Thrashers are finally a postseason contender after missing the playoffs in their first five seasons. Atlanta signed center Bobby Holik, traded for Marian Hossa, brought in several new defensemen and groomed top prospect Kari Lehtonen to take over in goal.

"I really believe this is going to be our year," Bondra said.

Florida's roster is primarily made up of players who weren't with the team during the 2003-04 season.

"What I like most so far is the enthusiasm and the attitude around the team," Panthers first-year coach Jacques Martin said. "I think some of the new players, they bring a lot of energy and they bring happiness. It's a good environment. It's a good feeling. And that's important. That's probably the base."

Martin, the 1999 NHL coach of the year, guided the Senators to three division titles in 8 1/2 seasons and went 341-255-96 in regular-season games with Ottawa. He was hired shortly after the 2003-04 regular season ended with Florida again on the outside of the league's playoff picture. The Panthers haven't won a postseason game since 1997.

So, instead of loading up on more young talent, Florida went for established leaders. The Panthers acquired centers such as Nieuwendyk, Jozef Stumpel and Chris Gratton, defenseman Sean Hill and left wings Roberts and Martin Gelinas.

Florida is solid at goaltender with Roberto Luongo, who was a finalist for the Vezina Trophy in 2003-04 after reaching career highs with 72 games, 25 wins, a 2.43 goals-against average, seven shutouts and a .931 save percentage. He also set an NHL record with 2,303 saves.

2003-04 STANDINGS: Thrashers - 78 points, 2nd place, 28 PB, Southeast Division. Panthers - 75 points, 4th place, 31 PB, Southeast Division.

2003-04 TEAM LEADERS: Thrashers - Kovalchuk, 41 goals, 46 assists and 87 points; Francis Lessard, 181 PIM. Panthers - Olli Jokinen, 26 goals, 32 assists and 58 points; Darcy Hordichuk, 158 PIM.

2003-04 SPECIAL TEAMS: Thrashers - Power play: 14.6 percent (60 for 409), 23rd in NHL. Penalty killing: 85.1 percent (333 for 391), 8th. Panthers - Power play: 16.7 percent (52 for 310), 13th. Penalty killing: 86.3 percent (323 for 374), 2nd.

2003-04 GOALTENDERS: Thrashers - Pasi Nurminen (25-30-7, 3 SO, 2.78 GAA); Lehtonen (4-0-0, 1, 1.25). Panthers - Luongo (25-33-14, 7, 2.43); Steve Shields (3-6-1, 3.44).

2003-04 SEASON SERIES: Thrashers, 3-1.

LAST MEETING: March 19, 2004; Thrashers, 3-2. At Atlanta, Kovalchuk scored the game-winning goal with 23.7 seconds remaining.

2003-04 ROAD/HOME RECORDS: Thrashers - 15-20-4-2 on the road; Panthers - 16-15-7-3 at home.

Associated Press
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