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Southeast: Waddell sparks Thrashers, Kovalchuk

by Robert Picarello

Since taking over behind the bench, Thrashers' GM/coach Don Waddell has seemed to light a fire under his team, and imparticular, winger Ilya Kovalchuk.
On Oct. 17, Atlanta Thrashers General Manager Don Waddell fired head coach Bob Hartley with the Thrashers mired in an 0-6-0 slump, taking over behind the bench.

So far, the results have been phenomenal. The Thrashers have won six of their first nine games under Waddell, and while the whole team seems to have benefited from the change, no player has benefited more than Ilya Kovalchuk.

The 24-year-old Kovalchuk has scored 10 goals and six assists since Waddell took over the reins.

"He's the reason why I'm here," Kovalchuk said in a conference call earlier in the week. "He is the one who picked me first overall in the draft in 2001, and now it is my sixth year. I've got a really good relationship with him.

"But now he is the coach and I am the player. You know when you're 0-6 from the start, you expect they're going to do something, and they fired the coach, so that was a little bit like a shock for the team. Everybody started, I think, to prepare themselves better. We just started playing for each other and that's the key. We started to win the games and get some points and that's the most important thing."

No one in the League has been as hot as Kovalchuk over the past three weeks. Last week, for example, Kovalchuk led all NHL players in scoring with six goals and an assist in three games. His six goals came in the last two games of the week, when he recorded back-to-back, road hat tricks, becoming the first player to accomplish the feat since Mario Lemieux did it in 1995-96.

If he keeps up this torrid pace, Kovalchuk could end up with 70 goals this season.

"I never think how many goals or how many points I'm going to score," Kovalchuk said. "I just go there and play my hardest and play my best. Coach puts you in there, and he expects for me to score – not maybe every shot, but that's why I'm there. To score goals and make good plays and help my teammates for a good chance, so that's my job to do."

Kovalchuk credited his teammates for much of his success.

"The guys created a lot of good opportunities for me,” he said. “They gave me the puck at the right time and the right position, and I was just able to score. It's all about teamwork."

It's also about winning, and the Thrashers have been doing a lot of that lately with Waddell calling the shots and Kovalchuk burying his chances.

"You know he's the GM, but he's (also) the coach now, too, and at the same, he is a great person," Kovalchuk said of Waddell. "He's always going to talk to you if things didn't go your way or you're struggling a little bit. He knows who he needs to yell at or who he needs to just tell, like, relax and let's play. He always got some right words to tell the guys and I think that's very important."

Who’s hot -- Atlanta's Slava Kozlov ranks second on the Thrashers with 10 points (five goals, five assists) after 15 games. He has tallied at least one point in five straight games, posting

seven points (three goals, four assists) in that span. … Tampa Bay's Vincent Lecavalier has registered 12 points in his last eight games. In a 6-4 loss to the Thrashers last Saturday, Lecavalier picked up assists on three of his team's four goals. … Florida center Olli Jokinen has amassed 10 points in his last six games. His 18 points (9-9-18) and seven power-play tallies are tops on the club. … While no Washington player has been sizzling of late, veteran center Michael Nylander went into Thursday night's action contributing three points in the Caps' last three games. … Carolina's Cory Stillman has points in eight straight games, posting 14 points off six goals and eight assists. The 33-year-old led the way Monday night against Washington, picking up his fourth-career hat trick – first with the Hurricanes – in a 5-0 win over the Capitals.

Southeast quotes -- "He has taken it upon himself now to take his game to another level, one that is as high as it can possibly be."

-- Atlanta GM/head coach Don Waddell said in regards to Ilya Kovalchuk's recent play.

"The team's winning, we're producing, we have confidence, we have confidence with the puck. That ends up showing on the stat sheet after you have a win."

-- Carolina's Cory Stillman on the Hurricanes’ fast start.

A look ahead –On Friday, Nov. 9, the Thrashers play the Panthers. On Saturday, Nov. 10, the Lightning play in Washington and the Thrashers host Carolina. On Monday, Nov. 12, the Hurricanes visit Florida Panthers.


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