Peter Forsberg and Simon Gagne each scored in a shootout, lifting Philadelphia to a 3-2 win over the Atlanta Thrashers on Thursday night, making Stevens a winner in his Flyers’ coaching debut.
“It’s great to get the first win,” Stevens said. “The team needed something to build on, something to build confidence in my team. I think it was terrific the way it ended.”
After Johan Hedberg had 29 saves in regulation and overtime for the Thrashers, he was pulled for Kari Lehtonen. The Flyers jumped all over the goalie change, with Gagne and Forsberg scoring on the Flyers’ first two shots.
Vyacheslav Kozlov had the only shootout goal for Atlanta on its first shot. No one else could slip one past steady Antero Niittymaki, who had 28 saves.
“When you make a change like this, this is what should happen when you get a new coach, a new energy to the team,” Forsberg said. “We came out the way we should come out.”
This was the boost the Flyers desperately needed five days after Stevens was promoted from first-year assistant to coach, hoping to nudge them out of last place.
The Flyers entered with the worst record and fewest points in the NHL, a shaky start that resulted in one of the most drastic shakeups in team history. Longtime general manager Bob Clarke resigned and coach Ken Hitchcock was fired Sunday with the Flyers on their first five-game losing streak since 2002 and off to their worst start in 17 years.
“It was a great experience,” Stevens said. “It was something that was much needed.”
Forsberg, Gagne and Niittymaki ensured the losing streak wouldn’t stretch to six. And while 2-6-1 hardly sounds promising, the win was a strong start to a five-game homestand.
Even the Thrashers could tell this was more than a meaningless early-season game for the Flyers.
“Obviously they were very happy, from what I heard,” centre Bobby Holik said. “They weren’t too thrilled playing for Hitchcock of late. They were excited that he’s out of here, but we were aware of that. But, hey, for us it’s just another game.”
Still bothered by a sprained left wrist that kept him out of one game, Forsberg delivered when needed in an already-big early-season game. Not only that, he scored on a power play.
The Flyers were a measly 4-for-55 on the power play this season, 0-for-15 the last three games, and squandered their only other opportunity against Atlanta. With Andy Sutton still in the box from a second period holding penalty, Forsberg knocked the puck off Hedberg’s pads from close range only 56 seconds into the third for a 2-1 lead.
Forsberg raised his stick in celebration 56 seconds into the third and finally got a rise of a surprisingly smaller crowd than the traditionally packed arena the Flyers are used to.
Holik, though, tied it 2-2 midway through the period with a shot that stunned Niittymaki.
Thrashers coach Bob Hartley said he made the shootout goalie switch because Lehtonen was his stopper.
“The Moose (Hedberg) gave us a great game, but we feel the guy who could make a difference in a shootout was Kari,” Hartley said.
Playing at home may have been a spark for the Flyers. The Flyers played six of their first eight games on the road, including a 9-1 loss at Buffalo that convinced chairman Ed Snider he needed to fire Hitchcock after three-plus seasons without a Stanley Cup final appearance.
Though Stevens said he expected some pre-game jitters, he appeared relaxed behind the bench, his hands behind his back, watching many of the same players he coached to a minor-league title two seasons ago.
“Obviously there were butterflies. It’s a different league,” Stevens said.
The Flyers got an early lift about two minutes into the game when Mike Knuble snagged the loose puck down the right side just past the blue line and made a nice feed to Randy Robitaille who scored for a 1-0 lead.
Atlanta came back about five minutes later when Kovalchuk was left all alone and streaked down centre ice for an easy breakaway goal, tying the score 1-1.
Notes: Kovalchuk has scored a point in six straight games. … The Thrashers finished their second set of back-to-backs this season and play the fourth game of a five-game, eight-day road trip Saturday at Buffalo. … The Flyers completed their organizational coaching shuffling, naming Joe Mullen assistant coach of the AHL Philadelphia Phantoms. … Flyers D Lars Jonsson (ankle) played his first game of the season.