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Atlantic: Warm welcome awaiting Kovalchuk in ATL?

by Phil Coffey
The game is so rife with playoff implications that folks may not even notice Ilya Kovalchuk's return to Atlanta Tuesday.

The Thrashers need points more than fresh air at this point in the season -- they're three points behind the eighth-seeded Philadelphia Flyers and one point behind the ninth-seeded Rangers with time running out. New Jersey is in a flat-footed tie with the Pittsburgh Penguins for the top spot in the Atlantic Division and the second seed in the East once the puck drops on the Stanley Cup Playoffs.

So there won't be a lot of time for fond recollections or angry outcries regarding Kovalchuk, who was traded to New Jersey on Feb. 4 after failing to come to agreement on a contract extension in Atlanta. In return, Atlanta got defenseman Johnny Oduya, forward Niclas Bergfors, prospect Patrice Cormier and a 2010 first-round draft pick. Both Oduya and Bergfors have played well for the Thrashers, as has Kovalchuk with the Devils, with 9 goals and 14 assists in 23 games.

Kovalchuk told Tom Gulitti of the Bergen Record and Rich Chere of the Newark Star-Ledger he is looking forward to returning to Atlanta, where he spent over seven seasons, but he isn't sure how the fans will react.

"It will be nice, a little weird," Kovalchuk said. "But for sure it will be something special.

"I hope they're not going to boo me because I think we had a great relationship all of my career there," he added. "I did everything that I can for that organization. It was just time to move on."

Kovalchuk could be on the move again as he can become an unrestricted free agent July 1. That's a big reason why Thrashers GM Don Waddell opted to make the move in advance of the trade deadline, insuring Atlanta received some assets rather than lose Kovalchuk for nothing. The Devils had the depth to give Atlanta what it needed and the hope is Kovalchuk provides the offense needed to take the Devils deep into the playoffs.

"Like I said a lot of times, I'm excited and proud to be part of the Devils," Kovalchuk told Gulitti. But he still has fond feelings for Atlanta.

"For sure, I've got a lot of friends there, a lot of pals (in Atlanta) and that city will be part of my life forever because my son was born there and it's a special place for me."

Kovalchuk expects 25-30 friends and family members to be on hand for his return. He also said he remains in touch with his former Thrashers teammates.

"I always talk to the guys that are there, the Russian guys and some other guys," he said. "They still have a chance and that's going to make it even more interesting because it will be a very important game for both teams."

Laviolette: 'We're good' -- Flyers coach Peter Laviolette said he was happy with where his team sat heading into the final week of the season.

"Everybody left (Friday's) game (a 1-0 loss to Montreal) knowing that if we play that way we were going to win hockey games," Laviolette said after Sunday's win against Detroit. "I don't think that was ever in question, that wasn't in doubt. But then you actually have to go out and play that way again. The points have to come your way and the win has to come your way, and it did today. You get the reward for the effort. Last game I don't think we got the reward, (but) I liked the effort."

After Friday's disappointing loss to the Canadiens, the Flyers played with desperation against the surging Red Wings.

"The first eight minutes of that first period we played very well," Flyers defenseman Chris Pronger told's Adam Kimelman. "For whatever reason, we let off the gas pedal a little bit. They're a team that can capitalize quickly -- couple breaks, couple bounces, they were able to do that. It's a credit to the ability of our guys to re-charge, re-focus between periods, come out and get that quick goal (Claude Giroux's go-ahead goal 53 seconds into the second period) to set everybody at ease and get that confidence back on the bench and on the ice. It was very important for us to not fall behind after getting up 2-0."
"Everyone was going down, trying to block shots, and we were physical on the good players," forward Ian Laperriere said. "That's what it takes at this time of the year to win games."

Comeback kids -- A loss to the Florida Panthers Saturday night might have scuttled the New York Rangers' playoff hopes for good, but four third-period goals were among the most welcomed of the season in a 4-1 win that vaulted New York over the Atlanta Thrashers and temporarily tied them with Philadelphia for the eighth seed in the East.

Mark Staal connected 18 seconds into the third period to tie the game and Brandon Prust put New York ahead at 9:36. Then Chris Drury connected 90 seconds later and Marian Gaborik hit an empty net to salt away the win.

"I think all game we were just kind of hanging around with not really that much going on," said Staal, who has stepped up with goals in three-straight games. "But we knew the third period would have to be our best, and we needed the points more than they (did), and we came out and had a great period.

"I don't know what it is," Staal said of his recent offensive prowess. "I am making a more conscious effort on hitting the net when I am taking shots, and that's the biggest thing. And, of course, when you start scoring, that breeds confidence."

"We've been a good road team all year long," Rangers coach John Tortorella said. "We wouldn't be in this situation if we handled ourselves a little bit better at home. We can't look back. ... We need to look ahead and stay consistent no matter where we're at right now."

Bylsma prizes Pens' effort -- Points are paramount at this point of the season, but Penguins coach Dan Bylsma was more impressed with his players' effort against a desperate Atlanta Thrashers team Saturday than with the two points earned in a 4-3 overtime win.

"I don't think we needed the outcome," Bylsma told Dave Molinari of the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette. "I'm happy for the outcome, but win or lose in this game, I was happy with the way our team played, for a lot of reasons: Our response, the physicality with which we played, the bite with which we played and getting to our game and sticking with it."

But the points sure do help as the Penguins are in lockstep with the New Jersey Devils for the Atlantic lead and face the Washington Capitals Tuesday. So picking up every available point will tell whether the Pens are the second, third or fourth seed in the East come playoff time.

"It comes down to the 20 guys who are suited up needing to bring 'A' games," defenseman Jordan Leopold told Molinari. "We can't have 20 guys having off nights. If the guy next to you isn't on his 'A' game, it's up to the other guy to pick him up. That's what being a teammate is all about. As a group, we have goals to attain and we have to do it together."

Center Jordan Staal liked the Penguins' ability to rally repeatedly against the Thrashers as one of the major positives to come out of that game.

"We have to keep working on staying patient and working through things, battling through adversity and not getting down on ourselves," he said. "I thought we did a really good job of that (Saturday), considering that we kept getting down."

Around the Atlantic -- Devils coach Jacques Lemaire said he will try to spot some of his regulars during the last week of the season to keep them fresh for the playoffs. Jamie Langenbrunner did not play Saturday in the win against Carolina. Defenseman Paul Martin also sat. … Rookie Mark Fraser replaced Martin and Lemaire was happy with his play. "It was a long time that he hadn't played and Fraser was solid," Lemaire said. "He played an aggressive game, moved the puck well. I was very impressed with his game." … Daniel Carcillo was back in the Philadelphia lineup Sunday after serving a two-game suspension and made his presence felt immediately, scoring 17 seconds into the 4-3 win against Detroit. "Danny's a good, smart, aggressive, two-way hockey player," Flyers coach Peter Laviolette said. "He can play with skill, he can be physical, he can agitate, he can fight. . . . It was nice to get him back in there and his energy and get that bang right off the first shift from him."

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