For a team picked by many to finish at or near the bottom of the Eastern Conference standings, one would have to say the Atlanta Thrashers season opening weekend turned out to be a rousing success.
First, there was the opening night win over Washington, a 7-4 onslaught in which 12 different players hit the scoresheet. Defensively, the team held Alex Ovechkin in check in front of a sellout crowd at Philips Arena. Kari Lehtonen stopped Ovechkin on a penalty shot, which was the turning point of the game.
On Saturday night, Jason Williams tallied his first goal in an Atlanta Sweater to tie the game in the third period before David Booth scored in overtime for the win.
Overall, the Thrashers took three of a possible four points on the weekend.
But early on, things seem different for this edition of the Thrashers under new head coach John Anderson.
First, the system is completely different. Anderson encourages his defensemen to jump into the rush to aid the offense. This strategy paid off in the Friday opener when blueliner Ron Hainsey scored in the opening period on a put back in front of Capitals goaltender Jose Theodore. The system also incorporates a completely different set of responsibilities for defensemen defending in front of their goaltender, one which puts additional responsibilities on the defending forwards.
Secondly, the gap control over the first two games has been a thousand times better than what fans saw last season. The team has allowed very few odd man breaks over the weekend and has eliminated the room opponents have created for shooting opportunities once they enter the Atlanta zone.
Anderson is an offensive-minded coach who put up solid point totals during his NHL playing career. It was refreshing to watch two games this weekend in which the coaches opened it up. Washington coach Bruce Beaudreau and Florida head coach Peter Duboer like to play it loose similar to Anderson. One can only hope this becomes a trend around the league.
Finally, balance is a word that accurately describes this Thrashers team through the first couple of games. How else can you explain seven opening night goals, yet not a single one of them registered by the team's sharp shooter Ilya Kovalchuk? He set up a goal in the Friday win and did the same on Slava Kozlov's tally Saturday night. Look for Kovalchuk to continue developing his role as a setup guy as the season progresses.
Some other opening weekend observations:
It looks as if Anderson has chosen to use Niclas Havelid and Toby Enstrom as his defensive pairing against the top forward unit of the opposition. Both had strong games Friday against Washington, then struggled a bit against Florida on Saturday. When I talked with the Atlanta coach late last week, he told me he's more interested in matching defensive pairings against the opposition's top line rather than matching line for line.
The Atlanta penalty killing unit was excellent Saturday at Florida. Newcomer Marty Reasoner and returnee Eric Perrin led the surge and should help the Thrashers improve in this special teams category, which killed off all five Panthers powerplays.
Tuesday, the Minnesota Wild roll into Atlanta for a rare appearance. Former Thrashers Andrew Brunette and Eric Belanger will be back in town. The Wild play the ultimate team game incorporated since Day One of the franchise by head coach Jacques Lemaire. The team lost Brian Rolston and Pavol Demitra to free agency, but still have plenty of talent in the likes of Marian Gaborik, Mikko Koivu and Brent Burns.