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Once ice cold, Thrashers now sizzling

by Brian Hunter /
A few thoughts while we wish Barry Melrose better luck in his future endeavors:

Turning it around — Any team currently struggling need look no further than the Atlanta Thrashers to see that a change in fortunes could be right around the corner.

On Nov. 1, the Thrashers were … well, thrashed by New Jersey 6-1 for their sixth straight loss. Among those defeats was a 7-0 rout on home ice at the hands of Philadelphia just four days before the Devils debacle. Atlanta was 2-7-2 and appeared destined for a permanent place in the Southeast Division basement.

What's happened since then seems nothing short of remarkable. The Thrashers tied a franchise record Friday night with their fifth consecutive victory, a 3-2 decision at Philips Arena over the rival Carolina Hurricanes. Atlanta is now third in the Southeast and only two points behind Carolina for second. More important, the culture around the team has changed.

"It's been a very important stretch for us," said goalie Johan Hedberg, who stopped 27 shots. "We are right back into it and feeling good about ourselves."
Friday's win completed an odd home-and-home sweep for the Thrashers of the Hurricanes -- the teams played Sunday in Carolina, a game Atlanta won 5-2, and while the Hurricanes played and lost against Washington on Wednesday, the Thrashers had been off since then. The rest obviously didn't kill the momentum they had building.

"They're recognizing things that a month ago I never thought they'd get. I wish we had October back," rookie coach John Anderson said. "We're starting to grow as a team and hopefully it will get even better. We're on our way, but there are still things we have to learn."

Close, but no points — Speaking of teams that might want to check out what Atlanta has been doing, the Florida Panthers have inherited the Southeast basement after an 0-5-1 skid that bridged October and November. They had won two in a row before seeing their modest win streak ended by the Detroit Red Wings, who skated out of BankAtlantic Center with a 3-2 win.

Richard Zednik and Stephen Weiss rallied the Panthers back from a 2-0 deficit created by a pair of Marian Hossa goals, but the Wings came up with the winner in the third when Johan Franzen deflected a Niklas Kronwall shot.

"I think our effort was there," Weiss said. "We battled hard against a real good team. We just couldn't find a goal in the third when we needed one after they got the quick power-play goal."

The season began with a lot of optimism that Florida could be ready to end a long playoff drought dating back to 2000, and the Panthers won four of their first seven games, punctuated by a 4-3 victory over San Jose on Oct. 24. But they were blanked the following night in St. Louis, starting the six-game losing streak that has left them with some ground to make up.

"We're definitely not into moral victories," Panthers defenseman Keith Ballard said. "Tonight you can say we played a pretty good game, we played hard, we outplayed them in the second, but at the end of the day, we don't have any points out of it. We need to get points every night."

A key addition — Although they managed to survive pretty well without Pascal Leclaire, the Columbus Blue Jackets were undeniably thrilled to get their starting goalie back for an important game against the Buffalo Sabres.

Leclaire, to his credit, looked like he'd barely missed a beat. He turned in a solid, 36-save effort and his teammates backed him up with plenty of offense in a 6-1 victory at HSBC Arena.

"That's the difference in the League right now," Columbus coach Ken Hitchcock said of the play the Jackets received between the pipes. "The teams that have it, they win. That's how competitive everybody is and that's how close it is. If you've got good goaltending you're going to win games."

Leclaire hadn't played since leaving a game against Minnesota on Oct. 25 and was pleased with both his outing and what the team was able to accomplish with his help.

"You don't want to come back and get destroyed," Leclaire said. "The win was important for us. It shows a lot of character coming in and beating a good team."

While the Jackets clicked throughout the night as a team, the Sabres looked disjointed in general. Patrick Lalime was pulled after allowing four goals on eight shots, and coach Lindy Ruff insinuated the rest of his players were just as much to blame for the loss.

"It's not the kind of start you want," said Lalime, who later returned to finish the game. "It was one of those nights. Every chance they had, they found a way to put it in."

Hanging in thereJose Theodore was the big acquisition in goal for the Washington Capitals this past offseason, but lately he found himself as a highly-paid backup as Brent Johnson got the start in four straight games.

However, when Johnson had to leave after the first period of a 5-1 win Wednesday over Carolina, the Capitals turned back to Theodore. He finished up well in that game and was the key reason why they skated past the New Jersey Devils 3-1 at Verizon Center.

"I think the last game, playing two periods got the rust out of my legs," Theodore said. "All day after practice I felt good and I knew I'd be ready for tonight's game."

Washington coach Bruce Boudreau had said during Johnson's stretch in goal that strong efforts would continue to be rewarded — not surprisingly, he'll stick with Theodore in the rematch Saturday night at the Prudential Center.

"He's played some pretty good games," Boudreau said. "But he had to make more 10-bell type saves tonight than any other time."

Theodore's biggest stop came with the Capitals ahead 1-0 in the second period and the Devils buzzing around his net. Zach Parise took a low shot along the ice that seemed to be headed for a wide-open portion of the net, but Theodore got the paddle of his stick on the puck and knocked it away just before it crossed the goal line.

"That's just when you really focus, you kind of do those last-minute, last-second reactions," Theodore said. "That's just a lucky break."

All's well that ends well — When they started a five-game road trip, the St. Louis Blues were undoubtedly hoping for better than a 1-3-1 mark. But given that the win came in the form of a 4-3 overtime win over the Chicago Blackhawks at the United Center, they were more than willing to take what they could get.

"That was an intense hockey game," Blues coach Andy Murray said. "I'm exhausted. I don't think there's game in this five-game trip we haven't battled. We were rewarded tonight because we stuck with it."

The Blues were 0-5-1 overall since blanking Florida on Oct. 25, so coming out of a tough building with two points meant a lot to the players — especially since St. Louis had to weather a storm, letting a 3-1 lead after the first period slip away before Andy McDonald scored his second of the night on a power play 2:15 into the extra period.

"The last road trip I thought we played pretty well and didn't get the results," McDonald said. "The guys were pretty emotional."

"I think the last game, playing two periods got the rust out of my legs. All day after practice I felt good and I knew I'd be ready for tonight's game." Capitals goalie Jose Theodore
Chicago still has not lost a home game in regulation this season, going 6-0-4, but Friday's effort was not indicative of how they want to play in front of the home fans. The Blackhawks had to scramble to get back in the game and took a costly penalty that led to McDonald's winner.

"We started a little slow tonight and dug ourselves a hole," Chicago captain Jonathan Toews said. "We can't blame anyone but ourselves for our slow start and the penalties we took."

No place like the road — The Nashville Predators always seem to find a way to hang around the fringe of the playoff picture, and it's hard to doubt their abilities this season after back-to-back road win in overtime — against San Jose and Anaheim, no less.

The Sharks hadn't lost at home all season until the Predators dealt them a 4-3 setback on Tuesday. If that wasn't enough, they followed up with the same result against the Ducks at Honda Center, a venue where they had only won three times in 18 previous visits.

"You've got to win games on the road. You can win all of them at home and not make the playoffs," said Ryan Jones, who chipped in a power-play goal. "We have to tighten up and win a couple more games to put ourselves in good position."

Dan Hamhuis put himself in position to convert Jason Arnott's pass for the winning goal 2:17 into the extra period. The Predators convened as a team in Anaheim to talk about tightening things up — despite pulling off an impressive feat by beating the Sharks on their home ice, they gave up 57 shots and had to rely on a brilliant effort by Dan Ellis in net to have a chance.

"Our game had been struggling as of late. We had the win in San Jose, but we didn't play very well," Hamhuis said. "I thought we played way better as a team (tonight). A lot of guys stepped up.

"It was a tough game, a game we were proud of. We've been struggling a little bit, and that was a classic road win for us."

Material from wire services and team online and broadcast media was used in this report.

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