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Thrashers, Kovalchuk aim to build on last season

by Evan Grossman

Thrashers' forward Ilya Kovalchuk says  competing in the playoffs last season was an invaluable learning experience.
The Atlanta Thrashers’ first playoff appearance was brief and painful. And nobody wore the frustration of that first-round loss to the New York Rangers more clearly than Ilya Kovalchuk.

It was the Thrashers’ first-ever appearance in the postseason, and the image of Kovalchuk, one of the game’s great offensive talents, going after Sean Avery in the closing minutes of the series spoke volumes about Atlanta’s level of frustration. To a man, the Thrashers were not happy about what happened last spring.

“You lose in four, you lose in seven, I don’t care what people say -- you lose, you lose,” Atlanta head coach Bob Hartley said. “Plus, we’re going to have eight new faces by the time the puck will drop on Oct. 5, so it’s a brand new challenge. It will be basically a whole new team. Eight players, that’s basically half of a team, so it’s a challenge for everyone. But you know what? You put people to work, you trust in them and we have some good people and we have 82 games to get there.”

As demoralizing as that loss was, it was still an invaluable learning experience for a young team that had never qualified for the playoffs before. Perhaps nobody got more out of it than Kovalchuk.

“For me, it was an unbelievable experience,” Kovalchuk told “Now I understand why everybody wants to be in the playoffs. It’s really hard to get there, but it’s a great time. I wasn’t sure how big, how exciting it would be when I stepped on the ice for the first time when we were in the playoffs, but 20,000 people were standing and going crazy, and it was unbelievable.”


Atlanta’s rise to first place in the Southeast Division has been a methodical climb. The team has gotten better each season since getting only 54 points in 2001-02. Last season’s 97 points brought the team its first division title and playoff berth. The fans are catching on, too, and the better the Thrashers get, the bigger the crowds have become.

“My first year, we had a couple of sellouts when the Rangers came or the Leafs or Detroit,” Kovalchuk says. “Most of the fans were from Detroit or New York or Toronto, so now it’s different. We have a good crowd. The most important thing is the people start to understand hockey more, so it’s good.”

As Atlanta fans get a better understanding of the game, the Thrashers are gaining a better understanding of what it takes to win in the NHL. They’ve got the regular-season part pretty much down pat; the challenge for this team on the rise is learning what it takes to be successful in the playoffs.

After getting their first taste of the tournament last spring, the Thrashers are looking for more this season.

“It’s a taste,” Hartley said. “We learned. It took us a couple of years, but we learned what it took to get to the playoffs and there’re no guarantees for this. There’re no guarantees. I think that it’s a challenge you have to face every year and once you get to the playoffs, you’re one of those 16 teams that have a chance.

“Last year, obviously we went out quick,” he said. “But anything can happen, so I think our goal once again is make sure we play with lots of pride, we get in the playoffs and after this, hopefully the lesson that we learned the past year will serve us well.”

According to Kovalchuk, the experience level of the Rangers was what set them apart from the Thrashers last spring. The Russian sniper also says the series was closer than the final score indicates.

“The third game, when it was seven-zip, that’s the only game we had no chance,” Kovalchuk said. “All three games before that, we lost by a goal. But we’ll get those goals with a little bit more luck and more experience, because last year we had a lot of guys who played for the first time in the playoffs. It’s so different.”

Did having so many playoff rookies made a big difference?

"Now I understand why everybody wants to be in the playoffs. It's really hard to get there, but it's a great time." -- Ilya Kovalchuk
“Oh yeah,” he said. “I think so because all the experienced guys, when you win the Cup you’ll see this year, Anaheim, Niedermayer, Pronger, all those guys. We can be there.”

As the Thrashers have gotten better, so has their star forward. Kovalchuk is concentrating on being a more complete player, and under Hartley’s watch, he’s gone from being a minus-53 in his first three seasons to a minus-2 last season. Developing into a plus player is a top priority for the 24-year-old gunner.

Playing on a line with two-way threat Todd White, who joined the Thrashers this summer, should help Kovalchuk in that regard.

“We’re going to play with Whitey, and it looks like and he’s a good at both sides,” Kovalchuk says of the 32-year-old center. “I think that’s the first time ever I play with that kind of guy, so I hope we’re going to be a plus. That’s my only goal. That, and make the playoffs.”

Hartley says that you can always teach players how to play defense. But when it comes to scoring goals, you either can or you can’t – and Kovalchuk has shown himself to be one of the best in the business when it comes to lighting the lamp. In five seasons in the NHL, he’s already scored 202 goals and shared the Rocket Richard Trophy in 2003-04, his third year in the League, when he had 41.

“That’s the only thing we’re asking from him,” Hartley said of Kovalchuk’s scoring touch. “We want his offense, as long as he’s not a liability defensively.”

Hartley also said that while Kovalchuk and White may be skating together right now, all that can change in the blink of an eye.

“If it clicks, it might stay for 82 games,” he said. “If it doesn’t, it might last for a shift. But I think that Whitey is a good complement for Kovy. He’s very good both offensively and defensively, so I think that Kovy, being in his sixth year now in the NHL, he’s showing signs of maturity over the years and I think that they could click very well together.”

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