They may be last in the Eastern Conference but it's way too early for the Atlanta Thrashers to give up hope of making the NHL playoffs, says red-hot forward Ilya Kovalchuk.
"That's our goal right now," Kovalchuk said in a telephone conference call Monday after being named the NHL's first star of the week. "We're just four points behind the playoffs.
"It's a long marathon. You never know what is going to happen. We're back on track. We just need to keep playing the way we are playing right now and we can be in good shape."
Kovalchuk became the first player in 12 years to score three goals in back-to-back games. He scored his first hat trick in a 6-4 loss to Ottawa on Thursday, then had three goals and an assist in a 6-4 win over Tampa Bay on Saturday.
His 12 goals in 14 games ties him for the most in the NHL with Detroit's Henrik Zetterberg. His 19 points leaves him sixth overall, tied with Ottawa's Daniel Alfredsson.
"I never think before the season how many goals or how many points I'm going to score," said Kovalchuk, who had 42 goals and 34 assists last year. "I just go and play my hardest. The coach expects me to score, maybe not every shift, but that's why I'm here."
Kovalchuk had 41 goals in 2003-04 to share the Rocket Richard Trophy with Jarome Iginla and Rick Nash, then scored 52 in 2005-06.
There were high expectations for Atlanta this year.
The Thrashers won the Southeast Division last season and made the playoffs for the first time in their seven-year history before losing in four straight to the New York Rangers.
The team started this year with six consecutive losses. That resulted in coach Bob Hartley being fired and general manager Don Waddell stepping behind the bench.
The Thrashers are 5-3-0 since Waddell took over. They remain last in the conference with a 5-9-0 record for 10 points. Heading into Monday night Pittsburgh held down eighth place in the Eastern Conference with a 6-6-1 record for 13 points.
Kovalchuk said there's been a change in the way Atlanta plays the game.
"Our system is a little bit different," he said. "We try to use more speed. . . it creates more offensive opportunities."
He also had high praise for Waddell, who made him the first-overall pick overall in the 2001 draft.
"I have a really good relationship with him," said Kovalchuk. "He's a great person. He's always going to talk to you, if things don't go your way or you are struggling a bit.
"He knows who he needs to yell at or who he needs to tell relax and play. He always got some right words to tell the guys."
No one was happy with the team's early-season losing streak, but the coach is the one who pays the price, said Kovalchuk.
"It wasn't even close the first four games," he said. "It was not funny. We were really mad, not at each other but at ourselves. Bad things happen, that's the game.
"When you're 0-6 from the start you expect the owner is going to do something. They fired the coach. That was a shock for the team. Everybody started to prepare themselves better. We just started to play for each other."
Waddell's presence behind the bench also focused some players.
"When the GM is behind your back you feel you have to play your best and work hard every night," said Kovalchuk.
Kovalchuk will earn US$5.5 million this season, second on the team to Marian Hossa's $7 million. He knows he's one of the players the team looks to for goals, but doesn't think that puts any extra pressure on him.
"It's not a pressure, it's a fun pressure," he said. "That's why you play hockey. When you feel your coach and your teammates trust you, they want you to score.
"You just try to score every time you shoot. You have to shoot if you want to score. The guys create a lot of good opportunities for me. They give me the puck at the right time in the right position. It's all about team work."