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Southeast: New-look 'D' getting it done for Thrashers

by Mike G. Morreale

"I think the defense has proven to be what we thought they were. We're very capable of moving the puck back there, capable of joining the rush on offense. While there's no doubt we'll have our ups and downs, we also know we're going to win our share of games this year."
-- Thrashers GM Don Waddell

While it's still early, the offseason upgrade along the blue line for the Atlanta Thrashers appears to be paying dividends.

Thrashers General Manager Don Waddell spent much of the summer retooling a defense that yielded a League-high 3.24 goals a game last season. In June, he took the first step by drafting Zach Bogosian. Waddell then signed two-way defenseman Ron Hainsey to a 5-year deal July 2 before trading for veteran Mathieu Schneider on Sept. 26.

"I think the defense has proven to be what we thought they were," Waddell told "We're very capable of moving the puck back there, capable of joining the rush on offense. While there's no doubt we'll have our ups and downs, we also know we're going to win our share of games this year."

Through 6 games this season, Atlanta sports a 2.83 goals-against average, which ranks 14th in the League. The penalty-killing unit ranks 19th at an 80.6 percent efficiency.

"I do see an improvement on defense," said Thrashers alternate captain Colby Armstrong. "Bringing in Ron Hainsey was a huge move for us with the way he can skate and move the puck out there. Trading for Schneider has proven to be huge; he's a physical leader who logs a lot of minutes, can play the power play, can kill penalties and is a great locker-room presence. Zach (Bogosian) can skate and is getting better every game, especially having Schneider as his partner. Our defense is more mobile, they move the puck well."

Armstrong is also grateful coach John Anderson is behind the bench.

"He's a proven coach for sure," Armstrong said. "He knows what it takes to win and get the most out of his guys and puts us in good spots to succeed with this system. I think we're getting better every game but we still have some work to do."

Turning the corner --
Tampa Bay coach Barry Melrose notched his first win behind the Lightning bench Tuesday when his club scored a 3-2 overtime win against Southeast Division foe Atlanta.

The triumph was the first victory by Melrose as an NHL coach since April 6, 1995, when he was behind the bench for the Los Angeles Kings. The Lightning (1-2-3) are currently fifth in the Southeast with 5 points.

Defensively, Melrose credited Paul Ranger and Andrej Meszaros for buckling down and limiting Thrashers sniper Ilya Kovalchuk to just 2 shots on 23 shifts. Melrose has made a conscientious effort to have both Ranger and Meszaros on the ice against the opposition's top line each game this season.

"We played Kovalchuk, one the League's best players, well and that's good to see from coaching point of view," Melrose said. "The thing about our team is that nobody wants to be that guy who makes the mistake, but, really, we need the guys to go out there and make the play. Let's be honest, we're not fooling anyone. We're not going to win without guys like (Vinny) Prospal, (Vinny) Lecavalier, (Martin) St. Louis and (Steven) Stamkos scoring some goals. They have to put the puck in the net for us. I thought (Lecavalier) played better (against Atlanta) and I also thought it was (St. Louis') best game of the year. I also though Ryan Malone was a physical presence out there and played extremely hard."

While Melrose sounded optimistic following his club's first win of the season, he understands there's more work to be done.

"You can't win the Stanley Cup in October, but you could miss the playoffs in October," Melrose said. "A lot of people are watching Tampa Bay and I realize some of those people are hoping to see us fail because of the way we do things around here; we're different. We're young and brash. For us, though, we just need to fight for loose pucks since that's the way the NHL is now. You've got to get your nose in there and compete for the puck."

Sloan homecoming -- Washington Capitals defenseman and Calgary native Tyler Sloan made his NHL debut Tuesday night in front of family and friends against the Calgary Flames.

The 27-year-old defenseman, who was paired with fellow Calgary native Jeff Schultz, became the first Capitals player to wear No. 89 and the oldest Capital to make his NHL debut since Mel Angelstad, who was 32 when he played his first NHL game in 2003-04. The highlight of the opening period came when Sloan flattened Calgary's Daymond Langkow at his own blue line. The hit prompted Calgary's Rene Bourque to take a fighting major, an unsportsmanlike conduct minor, an instigator minor, and a 10-minute misconduct.

"Our first priority was to win the game, so it was disappointing (following a 2-1 loss)," Sloan said. "I wasn't surprised with the reaction by Bourque to the hit. It's something I have to expect. Overall, I felt good but it was tough to get into a flow with so many penalties. I felt great after the first couple of shifts though."

Sloan was limited to 9:03 of ice time and just 12 shifts since the Caps were shorthanded seven times. Sloan registered two hits and one blocked shot.

Sloan is a seventh-year pro who was in his third season with Washington's American Hockey League affiliate, the Hershey Bears, before being recalled to the big club on Monday. He skated in the first 5 games this season -- all Hershey victories -- and recorded 3 assists. He played 124 games with Hershey the past 2 seasons after making his debut with the club during its run to the Calder Cup championship in the 2006 AHL playoffs.

Fedorov ties Mogilny -- Washington center Sergei Fedorov scored his 473rd career goal Tuesday in a 2-1 loss to the Calgary Flames to pull even with Alexander Mogilny for most career goals by a Russian-born player.

Fedorov already holds NHL career marks for Russian-born players with 1,151 points and 678 assists in 1,202 games. Mogilny posted 473 career goals in 990 games.

Leaping Panthers -- Florida coach Peter DeBoer was happy to see his offense come to life on Wednesday in a 3-1 victory against the Ottawa Senators.

The Panthers received scoring from a pair of his front-line centers when Nathan Horton and Rostislav Olesz connected early in the opening period to give the club a 2-0 edge. Olesz' goal, his first of the season, was generated after linemates Radek Dvorak and Gregory Campbell began pressuring the puck in the Ottawa end. Horton then connected for his second of the season just 33 seconds later off a wrist shot.

The Panthers (3-3-0, 6 points) also received stellar goaltending from backup Craig Anderson, who made 41 saves in his first start of the season and was even named the game's first star. He stopped 26 shots in the third period. Last year, Anderson proved to be a valuable backup, winning 8 of his last 10 starts during the 2007-08 season.

"We wanted to have a quick start and the start won us the game," DeBoer said. "I thought even in the second (period) we played well. In the third we sat back and ran out of gas. They cranked it up a notch. I don't know what the answer was, but our goalie made some big saves. He was outstanding. We needed a performance like that from him."

Capable backup --
While former Conn Smythe Trophy winning goalie Cam Ward will undoubtedly play a huge role in any success the Carolina Hurricanes muster this season, coach Peter Laviolette had to be awfully proud of backup keeper Michael Leighton Sunday.

The 27-year-old Leighton stopped 32 shots in a 3-1 victory against the Anaheim Ducks and was named the game's first star. Leighton has now won both starts for the Hurricanes this season.

"It wasn't necessarily pretty on our end and (Anaheim) probably had the majority of the chances, but Michael really came up big for us," Carolina forward Matt Cullen told "Sometimes you need that on the road. It's a good confidence builder for us."

Entering Thursday's game against the Pittsburgh Penguins, Leighton sported an impressive 1.92 goals-against average and .935 save percentage this season. Starter Cam Ward is 1-1-1 with a 3.30 GAA and .891 save percentage.

Ice chips --
Brian Lawton was elevated to the position of executive vice president and general manager of the Tampa Bay Lightning Wednesday. … The Lightning officially signed 33-year-old defenseman Marek Malik to a one-year contract Thursday. The St. Petersburg Times has reported that the native of Ostrava, Czech Republic, will don his No. 22 jersey Saturday against San Jose. … Carolina Hurricanes goalie Cam Ward announced the third-consecutive season of his Cam’s Champs program on Wednesday. Ward will donate $4 for each save during the 2008-09 season to Special Olympics of North Carolina. … The 2008 Caps Care Classic raised more than $180,000 through sponsorship, donations and an online auction, bringing the grand total of funds raised during the five years of the event to more than $1 million. The Caps Care Classic was held Oct. 6 at the Springfield Golf & Country Club in Springfield, Va., and benefits the Children’s National Medical Center and Washington Capitals Charities. … Capitals coach Bruce Boudreau had Sergei Fedorov centering for Alex Ovechkin and Chris Clark against the Calgary Flames Tuesday. … The Lightning will host Pink Out Night on Saturday when they face the San Jose Sharks at St. Pete Times Forum in Tampa. Fans are encouraged to wear pink in recognition of breast cancer awareness.

Hurricanes coach Peter Laviolette passed the late "Badger" Bob Johnson into second place among U.S.-born coaches with 235 career victories following his team's 3-1 victory against Anaheim on Sunday. Former Tampa Bay coach John Tortorella tops the list with 239. … Laviolette recently adjusted his line pairings, having Rod Brind’Amour center for Ray Whitney and Matt Cullen and Eric Staal playing the middle for Sergei Samsonov and Patrick Eaves. Rookie Brandon Sutter continues to play pivot for Ryan Bayda and Chad LaRose. … On Monday, Hurricanes GM Jim Rutherford announced that the team returned rookie forward Zach Boychuk to his junior hockey team, the Lethbridge Hurricanes, of the Western Hockey League. Boychuk, the Hurricanes' first-round (No. 14) selection in the 2008 NHL Entry Draft, played in two games with the big club. … Capitals defenseman Mike Green accrued a career-high 34:05 of ice time Saturday against New Jersey. He led the Caps last season with an average of 23:38 of ice time.

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