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Kovalchuk coming up big in Atlanta revival

by Dan Rosen

Ilya Kovalchuk is well aware that if he doesn’t score, there’s a good chance the Atlanta Thrashers don’t win.
Ilya Kovalchuk doesn’t need to motivate himself by setting personal goals. He’s well aware that if he doesn’t score, there’s a good chance the Atlanta Thrashers don’t win. So, he better score … a lot.

“That’s why I’m here,” Kovalchuk said. “That’s my job.”

Kovalchuk, who scored 52 goals two seasons ago and 42 in leading the Thrashers to their first postseason appearance last season, wasn’t doing his job well enough through the first six games this season, and that likely contributed to coach Bob Hartley losing his.

But with General Manager Don Waddell coming down from his suite at Philips Arena to coach the club, each Thrasher knew there would be a newfound accountability with the boss behind the bench.

The Russian sensation, who Waddell selected first overall in the 2001 Entry Draft, not only has taken his responsibility seriously, he’s leading the Thrashers’ charge back to respectability.

“He has taken it upon himself now to take his game to another level,” Waddell said, “one that is as high as it can possibly be.”

The Thrashers are 5-3 under Waddell while Kovalchuk has pumped in nine goals and dished out six assists since the 0-6 start, which came on the heals of the Rangers sweeping them out of the first-round of the Eastern Conference playoffs last season.

Kovalchuk registered back-to-back hat tricks last week, including the natural kind in the third period of a 6-4 loss to Ottawa, to earn the NHL’s First Star of the Week. He’s tied with Detroit winger Henrik Zetterberg for the most goals in the NHL with 12, and is sixth in the League with 19 points.

More importantly, Atlanta enters tonight’s game against Washington only three points shy of eighth in the Eastern Conference after being left for dead three weeks ago.

“Last year we lost five or six in a row, too, but it was in the middle of the season and nobody thought it was a big deal,” Kovalchuk said. “This year it was six right from the start and four losses last year in the playoffs, too. Everybody was talking about it, and that’s why the coach got fired. It’s a marathon in the NHL. You never know what’s going to happen. We’ve gone 5-3 in the last eight games. We’ve got 10 points now and we’re back on track, I think.”

While Kovalchuk admitted the coaching change shook the players and forced them to re-evaluate their responsibilities, the biggest difference in the Thrashers’ turnaround under Waddell is a system change.

Under Hartley the Thrashers were more dump-and-chase than free-wheeling, but Waddell is letting them do what they do best, which is play a speed and skill game.

With Kovalchuk, Marian Hossa, Slava Kozlov, Eric Perrin, Todd White and rookie Bryan Little, Atlanta is built for such a system.

“We have a lot of young guys who want to play, the fast guys and skill guys who are trying to use more speed,” Kovalchuk said. “We’re trying to use more speed, go into our zone and create offensive chances. I think that’s the key.”

Waddell said the result is the Thrashers now occupy more time in the offensive zone than before, which benefits their unsettled situation in goal.

“It used to be that if you take a 60-minute game and break it down, we were 20 minutes in the neutral zone, 30 in our own zone, and 10 in the offensive zone,” Waddell said. “We have turned it around now. It’s equal now. We live with the mistakes, but the number of mistakes will be small compared to the opportunities we might get. That’s what we’re seeing right now. A guy like Ilya can carry the puck and feel freedom to beat guys instead of dump it in and go get it.”

Kovalchuk is on a pace for roughly 70 goals. The last player even to reach 60 was Mario Lemieux, who pumped in 69 in 1995-96.

Kovalchuk grew up playing that way, so obviously he’s thrilled. Now the goal is to keep it up, and for that we get back to the absolute necessity for him to score. As it is now, he’s on a pace for roughly 70 goals, which may be a bit of a stretch. The last player even to reach 60 was Mario Lemieux, who pumped in 69 in 1995-96. Pavel Bure has the most this decade with 59 in 2000-01.

Waddell, though, noted the Thrashers are not the type of team that is going to win 1-0 or 2-1 games. They’re more in the 4-3 or 5-4 mold, so he doesn’t consider Kovalchuk scoring 60 a stretch at all, especially when you consider the torrid streak he’s on now.

“I wouldn’t want to be on record right now saying he won’t score 60 goals,” Waddell said. “I’m not going to say he will, but the way he’s going, I know the Gretzkys and (Sidney) Crosby last season went through stretches like this, but when you see it first hand, it’s something else.”

All that’s left now is for the rest of the Thrashers, most notably Hossa, to join in.

Hossa, who had 43 goals and 100 points last season, has just three goals and three assists this season. But he may have turned a corner in the last two games. He assisted on one of Kovalchuk’s three third-period goals against Ottawa and added a goal and an assist in the win over Tampa Bay two nights later.

When Hossa scored with 3:36 left in the second period, a goal that cut Tampa’s once three-goal lead down to just one, Waddell said, “The happiest guy on our team was Ilya Kovalchuk.

“He gave him a big hug on the bench and that’s very rewarding as a coach and GM to watch your star player react like that to another star player. (Kovalchuk) feels the pressure on him to deliver and he likes that pressure. He has rewarded us all for giving him the chance to step it up.”


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