ATLANTA – When Craig Ramsay became coach of the Atlanta Thrashers in June, he sought to implement a system that demands offense from every player.
The Thrashers’ fourth line, featuring left wing Eric Boulton, center Jim Slater and right wing Chris Thorburn – dubbed locally as “The Greek Gods” line for the players’ chiseled physiques a few seasons ago -- has taken that concept to heart.
On Saturday, Boulton, a player better known for his 1,082 career penalty minutes than his 25 career goals, recorded his first career hat trick as part of a four-goal effort by the line that fueled the Thrashers to a 7-1 victory over New Jersey before a season-high crowd of 17,024 at Philips Arena.
Atlanta improved to 11-2-2 over its last 15 games and now has 41 points in 34 games, moving the Thrashers into first place in the Southeast Division. They passed Washington (40 points), which lost its eighth straight game on Saturday by falling 3-2 in Boston. It’s the first time the Thrashers have been in first since Oct. 10, 2008.
“That’s pretty cool,” Ramsay said of the Thrashers’ first-place standing, then he dead-panned, “Yeah, well, expected, I guess….”
“I told them to enjoy this.”
One person who is enjoying Ramsay’s tenure is Boulton, who is averaging 8:51 of ice time per game -- 2:00 per game more than last season. His 4 goals this season matched a career high and, after going plus-3 on Saturday, he is a plus-10 on the season. Thorburn, who had a goal and a pair of assists, and Slater, who had an assist, each was plus-4 and are both plus-12 for the season.
“I don’t ask them to go out and fight everybody, I want them to play,” Ramsay said. “And they’ve been given that opportunity and they’re responding extremely well….
“You don’t pigeon-hole people. Give them a chance to participate in all aspects of the game and you’ll be rewarded.”
Boulton said this season is the most he’s ever played since coming to the NHL in 2000.
“And it’s a lot of fun,” he said. Ramsay “trusts our line out there. I think our line’s been playing pretty good all year and whenever we can chip in like that it’s going to help our team win.”
After losing their last two games by shootout, the Thrashers built a 4-0 lead, chasing Martin Brodeur with 12:25 left in the second period after scoring four times in 15 shots.
The win gave the Thrashers points in five straight (3-0-2) while the floundering Devils lost for the seventh time in regulation in eight games -- and while ex-Thrashers captain Ilya Kovalchuk scored the Devils’ only goal, the effort ruined his second game back in Atlanta since being traded last February.
“Everything went wrong,” Kovalchuk said. “I don’t know what. It’s unacceptable. It’s embarrassing.”
The Thrashers scored three times in a stretch of 5:12 in the first period to take a 3-0 lead into the first intermission.
Defenseman Ron Hainsey started the scoring with his first goal of the season at 10:56 when he zoomed in from the left point to pick up a rebound and wrist it high past Brodeur’s blocker.
Defenseman Johnny Oduya, who came over in the Kovalchuk trade from New Jersey in February, started the play for the next goal by sending the puck behind the net from the left point. Thorburn retrieved it and, undefended, skated out on the opposite side where he slipped a quick backhand pass to Boulton, who tapped it through Brodeur’s pads with 4:30 left in the period.
Evander Kane earned his 11th goal 38 seconds after Boulton’s. On a 3-on-2 rush, Kane passed from the left wing all the way across to the right side. Hainsey fumbled the puck a bit and then Anthony Stewart sent it to the middle where Kane batted it out of the air into the net.
The crowd roared at the closing seconds of the first period in salute. Atlanta has been criticized in the media for poor attendance, but the building rocked on Saturday. Captain Andrew Ladd, who came over from Chicago this summer, was asked if the atmosphere gave a taste of what Philips can be like on a nightly basis.
“I think so,” he said. “We got a great turnout tonight, and we kind of put on a little show for them tonight, so it was nice. And any time you get a hat trick from a tough guy, it’s a special night.”
Ladd made it 4-0 with a wicked wrist shot from the right circle that beat Brodeur high to the glove side at 6:37 of the second period. Brodeur left the game 58 seconds later during a television timeout for former Atlanta fan favorite Johan Hedberg, who signed with New Jersey this summer.
With 4:17 left in the second period, Kovalchuk scored on a one-timer from the top of the left circle – a shot Thrashers fans had seen him convert countless times in this building.
Boulton made it 5-1 at 4:07 of the third period when he jammed the puck past Hedberg on a play that had to be confirmed by video review. He got his third goal to make it 6-1 with 3:06 left in regulation when Hedberg mishandled the puck behind the net and Boulton, who entered the game with 1 goal, popped it into the open net before Hedberg could recover.
Boulton said he wasn’t sure that he’d get to the puck in time.
“This is too good to be true,” he said. “Just a lucky bounce. What more can you ask for?”
Thorburn finished the scoring with 62 seconds left.
In the Devils’ dressing room, the soul-searching continued.
“No one is going to feel sorry for us,” Hedberg said. “We have to stand up, face it, get better and start to win.”