Atlanta's Russian Express

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Atlanta's Russian Express

The National Hockey League has built a solid foundation on great teams and greater players. In past years, the game has seen legendary performers and marvelous forward combinations. In the old six-team NHL, forward lines that could work in concert and produce goals on the ice were watched and admired.

In Atlanta, the Thrashers may have hit on just such a forward combination that could catapult them to the Stanley Cup playoffs after finishing out of contention the last several years. Russian born Ilya Kovalchuk, Nik Antropov, and Maxim Afinogenov have stirred up considerable excitement with their speed and exceptional skating, shooting, and passing skills, drawing comparisons with other great forward combinations.

In the 1940s, there was the Punch line in Montreal, featuring Maurice “Rocket” Richard, Elmer Lach, and Toe Blake.

The Boston Bruins had the Kraut line, showcasing German descendants Woody Dumart, Milt Schmidt, and Bobby Bauer.

In the 1950s, Detroit had the formidable Production line, starring Gordie Howe, Ted Lindsay, and Sid Abel.

In later years, the NHL got a chance to enjoy the Goal-A-Game line (GAG) with Rod Gilbert, Jean Ratelle, and Vic Hadfield of the New York Rangers.

One of the most exciting forward line combinations was the French Connection line, made up of French-Canadiens Gilbert Perreault, Rick Martin, and Rene Robert.

Another combo that caught the public’s attention was the Los Angeles Kings' Triple Crown line with Marcel Dionne, Dave Taylor, and Charlie Simmer.

Team USA produced the Coneheads, featuring Mark Pavelich, John Harrington, and Buzz Schneider.

In each case, the catchy name of the line along with a flair for scoring goals made it easy to focus on the players and enjoy their electricity, pinpoint passing skills, and skating.

The opposition, for purposes of survival, designed defensive strategies to slow down or impede the productivity of these units. As far as the Thrashers are concerned, competing teams have now started to take notice and do just that.

The attribute all of these great forward combinations share are their uncanny ability to understand individual responsibilities and unselfishly contribute to the good of the line. Most also had a knack for knowing exactly where their linemates were on the ice at all times.

Typically there is a passer, a shooter, and a checker on the unit. The Thrashers are no exception; Kovalchuk is the shooter, Antropov is the passer and Afinogenov has been an effective checker. Each player is also capable of electrifying the crowd with their exceptional skating and puck handling skills while handling their individual duties.

Kovalchuk, who is in the last year of his contract, is the catalyst. Now captain of the team, he is scoring goals at over a goal-a-game pace and is a early contender for the Rocket Richard Trophy as the league’s top goal-scorer despite missing several games due to a injury. Barring anymore unforeseen injuries, Kovalchuk is on track to score 70-plus goals this season.

Kovalchuk got his hockey training playing for Moscow Spartak, a highly rated junior team in Russia, before being drafted by the Thrashers. Kovalchuk wears number 17, just like his idol, Russian Red Army superstar Valeri Kharlamov (deceased).

Nik Antropov played for the Moscow Dynamo as a junior before being drafted in the NHL by the Toronto Maple Leafs. In his three most productive seasons with them, he scored 18, 24, and 21 goals. He displayed National Hockey League skills, but never reached the plateau expected of him in Toronto. He played in New York for seven games, scoring two goals, prior to being picked up by the Thrashers.

So far this season, Nik is averaging an assist per game. “I’m just starting to get back in the groove [of playing center],” Antropov said in a recent interview. “It took me 12, 14 games just to get the feeling back, being on face-offs and stuff like that. It was quite an adjustment. I haven’t played center in the last six or seven years. But I’ve started to feel more comfortable and the team is winning. That’s most important.”

Even though Antropov has not scored any goals yet this season, his linemates are confident things will come around. “He’s a great player,” Kovalchuk said. “He’s going to get his goals too. If everybody keeps playing well, we’ll all get goals...He can play center and right wing. That’s why we are blessed.”

Maxim Afinogenov, the third member of the line, has produced 141 goals and 210 assists in 586 games playing for the Buffalo Sabres since being drafted from the Moscow Dynamo, like Antropov. He has scored consistently, registering a point per game with Atlanta. At 6’6", Afinogenov represents a formidable presence that causes defensemen problems trying to keep him out of the goal crease while also trying to keep an eye on his linemates.

One thing is without question; Ilya Kovalchuk, Nik Antropov and Maxim Afinogenov have provided the crowds at Phillips Arena a lot of excitement and hope of things to come. Now all they need is a catchy name! So whether they become the Russian Roulette Line, The Russian Express, or another name that describes them well, Thrasher fans will be looking for them to play and celebrate goals together.

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