The Atlanta Thrashers have continued to silence their hockey critics by finding a way to win in many of the games they have played this season.
Considering that the Thrashers were out of playoff contention early last season and many hockey experts had pronounced them “dead on arrival” before the season got under way, means their accomplishments so far this year have been surprising to say the least.
GM Don Waddell and Coach John Anderson worked diligently through the summer putting together a mixture of veterans, young players, and free agents who all seemed to share one common thread: they all wanted to win.
Atlanta has had a good stable of players in previous years. Danny Heatley, Marian Hossa, and Marc Savard have all been in the Atlanta lineup but the team could not ever seem to get too far out of the starting gate.
For some reason the 2009-10 Thrashers seem to have a different look and feel. Yes, Ilya Kovalchuk is still on the team and is their captain and best player, but it does not end there. This season Kovalchuk is joined by two other Russian-born players, Maxim Afinogenov and Nik Antropov.
The three have played on a line together for the majority of the season and have consistently managed to find the net. Dubbed the Russian Express , Kovalchuk, Antropov, and Afinogenov have at times brought Phillip Arena fans to their feet with their speed finesse, and creativity. The only NHL that has possibly been more of a surprise is the LA Kings.
No NHL team can make the playoffs with just one line and the Thrashers are no exception. Rich Peverley has been a tremendous addition as well as Todd White and rookie Evander Kane. Defenseman Pavel Kubina, Tobias Engstrom, and Zach Bogosian have added skill and puck moving ability to the defense corps.
Let's have a look at the 10 reasons the Thrashers will make the Stanley Cup playoffs.
Kovalchuk was drafted first overall by the Thrashers in 2000. He was around when Heatley, Hossa, and Savard were all on the team. He has consistently been the team’s top goal scorer and has won league awards such as The Rocket Richard Trophy as the NHL’s top goal scorer.
A perennial All-Star selection, he was appointed captain of the team before the start of the season.
Kovalchuk has scored clutch goals and almost single-handedly made the Thrashers a formidable team to deal with in the shootout sessions.
Even with contract negotiations that could result in Kovalchuk being traded, his performance has helped inspire his teammates.
Kovalchuk has a lot of things to consider this season. As the captain and best player on the Atlanta Thrashers, not only does he have to think about putting wins on the board and pucks in the net, but he also has to consider his future. For Kovalchuk the 2009-10 season may just be the most pivotal of his career.
History shows that contract negotiation years are extremely difficult for the player and the team. Publicly the progress or lack of progress is never discussed, but the player, team management and teammates are well aware of what is going on.
The Thrashers would like to sign Kovalchuk to a new contract solidifying the team’s efforts to improve and gain entry into the Stanley Cup playoffs on a regular basis.
The desire to sign Kovalchuk and the economics that enter into it are complicated.
John Anderson's coaching credentials are multi-layered.
He played in the NHL and the minor leagues. He coached the AHL Chicago Wolves for what seems like forever and made them one of the league's most successful minor league franchises.
When he was hired by the Thrashers, criticism abounded that he would not be able to make the transition.
In a short time span Anderson not only gained the respect of his players, but he transformed the Thrashers into a formidable team capable of winning against anyone.
Maxim Afinogenov played for the Moscow Dynamos elite team before being drafted into the NHL and playing for the Buffalo Sabres in the NHL.
Afinogenov's best season was 2005-06 when he scored 22 goals and 51 assists. He seems reinvigorated with the Thrashers producing goals and assists while playing on a line with Kovalchuk and Antropov.
He has been one of the Thrashers' most consistent producers. He has lifted Phillips Arena fans out of their seats with his stickhandling skill and speed.
The 6-foot-6 Antropov is a towering presence who can skate with speed and grace, or run an opponent into the boards with brutal force.
Antropov plays center for the Russian Express line featuring Kovalchuk and Afinogenov. His only criticisms are his sporadic lack of aggressiveness and his reluctance to take more shots. If he were to camp in front of the opposing goaltender more often, he would drive defenders insane.
There is no question about his talent and his significance to the team.
Rich Peverley made it to the NHL the hard way.
He played in the ECHL for the South Carolina Stingrays and the AHL Milwaukee Admirals. He also briefly played for the Nashville Predators before signing with the Thrashers.
Peverley has been a sparkplug all season, scoring clutch goal after clutch goal and leading by example. Peverley's contribution has made the Thrashers a team to be reckoned with; he is averaging almost a point per game.
Tobias Enstrom was not a first round draft choice but he has proven to be guite a find.
Coach Anderson uses him on the power-play and to kill penalties in addition to his regular shift. Enstrom has shown excellent passing and playmaking ability, which has served the Thrashers well on the attack.
He rarely makes a bad pass on the power-play and is the leading offensive producer amongst the defensemen.
Pavel Kubina is the Thrashers best plus/minus performer. Even though he possesses good offensive skills, he has continued to shine by shutting down some of the NHL's best offensive performers.
Kubina is one of the key contributors who has turned around what was a porous defense last year. He is a excellent positional player and his experience has benefited the entire defense corp.
Zach Bogosian is just a sophomore, but his ability is unquestioned. Even though he is still learning one of the toughest positions in the game he has continually shown why Coach Anderson appointed him alternate captain.
Bogosian has a laser-like slap shot and excellent skating ability. He also is not afraid to mix it up and will fight any comer. The only thing Bogosian needs is more experience to develop into a full fledged All-Star.
Pavelec has added depth to the goaltending ranks of the Thrashers. Along with the teams other two goalies Pavelec has made the opposition sit up and take notice, by regularly turning aside difficult shots one after the other.
No NHL team can win consistently without a goaltender who can dominate games and snatch wins from the hands of the opposition. The Thrashers now can win consistently and Pavelec is one of the main reasons why.
Eric Boulton was drafted 234th and many gave him no chance to crack a NHL lineup.
Surprise. Boulton cracked the lineup as well as a few knuckles and jaws. Boultos knows his job and he performs it well, protecting his teammates and keeping the opponents honest. Even in today's NHL, where there is a significant crackdown on violence, there is still a need for a player like Eric on any team that hopes to be a factor.
Colby Armstrong became a Thrasher as part of the deal that sent Marian Hossa to Pittsburgh. The Penguins did not want to give up the former first-round draft pick, but had little choice.
The Thrashers were delighted because of Armstrong"s versatility and potential. Armstrong has scored some clutch goals and following a 20 goal season, is poised to help the Thrashers reach the playoffs.