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Thrashers start 'new' season with win, try to forget 0-6 start @NHL

ATLANTA (AP) -When the horn sounded, the Atlanta Thrashers crowded around their goalie, sharing hugs and high-fives.

What a way to start the "new" season.

OK, so those first two weeks are still on the books. Yes, the Thrashers still have the worst record in the NHL, a dismal one win against six losses. But, finally, they have a reason to feel good about themselves.

One day after firing coach Bob Hartley, Atlanta finally picked up its first victory of the season, beating the New York Rangers 5-3 on Thursday night. Every other team in the league has at least two wins.

"That was a big monkey off our back," said Johan Hedberg, who came off the bench after No. 1 goalie Kari Lehtonen was injured in the first period. "A lot has happened over the last two days. We are starting a new season and we wanted to start off in a good way."

Not many good things were happening under Hartley, whose demise likely started with a four-game sweep by the Rangers in last season's playoffs. Then, Atlanta lost its first six games this season - two of them blowouts - which prompted general manager Don Waddell to take over as interim coach.

"When you're 0-6, you've got to put that behind you," Waddell said. "If you're trying to fight uphill, it looks like a mountain. I never even mentioned it to the guys."

During the morning skate, the Thrashers did seem a lot looser than they were under Hartley, an intense, hard-nosed coach who seemed to lose touch with the veterans and only made the team more uptight as the losses piled up.

Waddell joked around with a few players while letting assistant coaches Steve Weeks and Brad McCrimmon run most of the drills. Late in the 45-minute session, Ilya Kovalchuk and Chris Thorburn held a mock celebration after knocking the puck into the net, an indication of the more relaxed mind-set that Waddell was hoping to see.

"From my own experience, it always helps when you make trades or change coaches," Slava Kozlov said. "I hope it's going to take the pressure off."

The only bad news to come from the first win was Lehtonen's injury. He left 8 1/2 minutes into the opening period with a strained groin, a familiar problem that cost him more than two months of the 2005-06 season.

He will undergo an MRI in the next day or two, but Waddell didn't sound hopeful of a quick recovery.

"Certainly, he'll be out a while," Waddell said.

The Thrashers will turn the starting job over to Hedberg and dip into their farm system for a backup (former NHL goalie Fred Brathwaite is in their system) - just as the team begins a seven-game road stretch, the longest of the season.

"We have a big climb ahead of us," dour captain Bobby Holik said, bringing a bit of realism to the giddy locker room.

But Pascal Dupuis, who got Atlanta rolling by scoring the first goal against the Rangers, is actually glad to be going on such a lengthy trip.

"Not because we are going to be away from our fans," he stressed. "But because I think it's going to be good for team bonding. Hopefully, we can put some wins together."

Waddell will be doing triple duty for a while: handling his GM duties, coaching the team, and searching for Hartley's permanent successor. Already, some 30 potential candidates or their agents have called up to express interest, a couple of them ringing all the way from Europe.

During the only other coaching shake-up in Atlanta, Curt Fraser's firing in December 2002, Waddell went behind the bench for 10 games before hiring Hartley, who had won a Stanley Cup in Colorado.

"I came up with a pretty good choice last time," Waddell said. "We'll come up with the right guy eventually."

The Thrashers won the Southeast Division last season to earn their first playoff appearance. But they were wiped out by the Rangers, and the hangover from that stunningly quick end to the season seemed to carry over to the new year.

Through their first half-dozen games, the Thrashers ranked last in the NHL in both scoring (1.5 goals per game) and goals against (4.5). They were 28th out of 30 teams on both the power play and killing penalties.

Most troubling to Waddell was the play of the team's most important players. Marian Hossa, coming off a 100-point season, had one goal and no assists in his first three games, sitting out three others with a groin injury. Kozlov managed just two points in his first six games, after tallying a career-best 80 last year.

Both scored against the Rangers, with Hossa also earning an assist on Kozlov's goal.

Waddell intends to give more playing time to his stars, especially Kovalchuk and Hossa, hoping that will lead to more puck control rather than just dumping and chasing - and losing.

"We've got so many new and skilled guys, we need to have the puck," Hossa said. "If we have the puck on our sticks, it's going to be hard for the other team to score."

Hossa played a season-high 22 minutes, 48 seconds in his second game back from the groin injury, while Kovalchuk logged 20:41 of ice time.

"I've always believed, even during my years coaching in the International League, that the more your best players are on the ice, the better chance you have of success," Waddell said.

For one night, at least, everything went according to plan.

So far, so good with this new season.

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