Ilya Kovalchuk is averaging a point per game since being traded to New Jersey (Getty Images)
If you’re an Atlanta Thrashers fan, tonight’s your night for some good old-fashioned redemption.
I don’t know if Thrashers fans have their own version of the Dirty Bird or the Tomahawk Chop, but if they do, Tuesday is the night to get out, get loud and be proud.
Why? Because Ilya Kovalchuk returns to the South he spurned and the franchise he just may have rung the death knoll for by refusing to re-sign with. The (relatively) new New Jersey Devil recently notched his 40th goal of the season – the sixth-straight year he’s accomplished the feat – but hasn’t exactly lit the swamp on fire since heading north via a Feb. 4 trade.
Kovalchuk has 23 points in 23 games with New Jersey and no Devils forward has averaged more ice time than his 21:43 per game since the deal. But of those 23 points, just nine are goals, only two have come on New Jersey’s middling power play and only one has decided a game. Couple all of that with a 10-8-5 record since the trade and you don’t get what GM Lou Lamoriello envisioned when he sent steady defenseman Johnny Oduya, talented rookie Niclas Bergfors, prospect Patrice Cormier and a first-rounder to the Thrashers.
Meanwhile, Atlanta is doing what I have to believe not even its own fans or management thought possible after moving Kovalchuk: battling for the playoffs. The Thrashers are just a single game worse than the Devils since the trade at 10-9-5 and Bergfors has eight goals and 17 points in those 24 games. Not great, but not bad, especially when you consider Oduya’s 21:05 of solid work per night and his plus-9 rating as a Thrasher.
So things haven’t gone down the hole in Atlanta as I, and just about every NHL observer, figured they would. Which leads us to Tuesday’s matchup.
Without sounding trite, this is a must-win for the Thrashers. They’re three points out of eighth in the Eastern Conference with three games to play. But if they beat the Devils, the Toronto Maple Leafs best the floundering Flyers and the Northeast-leading Sabres can take down the 21st-overall Rangers, Atlanta can leap-frog the Blueshirts and get to within a single point of the East’s eight seed, currently held by the Flyers.
Unfortunately, Atlanta has conference powers Washington and Pittsburgh to battle in its final two games. But with the Capitals just playing out the string and the Penguins possibly looking past Atlanta, there’s hope the Thrashers could win out.
They’ll need some help from other teams, but with the Flyers and Rangers playing each other back-to-back to finish the season, there’s an opportunity for Atlanta to squeak by one of those franchises.
If there’s going to be any chance of that scenario coming to fruition, it must begin with a victory this evening. The Devils are fighting the Pens for the Atlantic Division crown and either the No. 2 or 3 seed in the East, so they’ll be primed.
But if the Seventh Man – the fans – can be the difference Tuesday night in Philips Arena, the Thrashers have every opportunity to begin a run towards the club’s second-ever playoff berth and the first without former franchise face Kovalchuk.
And wouldn’t it just be delicious to do so against Kovy and his new mates?
For more great profiles, news and views from the world of hockey, subscribe to The Hockey News magazine.