A memorable season – winning the Southeast Division championship to claim the franchise’s first trip to the playoffs – totally unravelled in four straight losses to the New York Rangers.
When a team’s Stanley Cup hopes have just been swept away in the opening round, it’s hard to reflect on all that went right during the regular season.
“It feels even worse now that it did last night,” centre Keith Tkachuk said Thursday, less than 24 hours after the season ended with a 4-2 loss at Madison Square Garden. “To go in and get swept the way we did is unacceptable and very disappointing.”
Tkachuk was acquired from St. Louis at the trade deadline, a move that helped the Thrashers snap out of a slump, hang on to the division lead and make the post-season for the first time in their eight-year history.
But he wanted much more when he waived a no-trade clause, believing the Thrashers had a chance to contend for the Stanley Cup. They didn’t even come close, getting outscored 17-6, outshot 143-99 and thoroughly outplayed by the Rangers.
Despite the dismal performance and what figures to be a hectic off-season – the Thrashers have only eight players under contract – the team brass tried to keep things in perspective.
“We had 97 points. We won our division. We’ll be raising a banner at our arena next season,” general manager Don Waddell said. “We’ve got to be proud of that.”
Waddell took care of one matter right up front: Bob Hartley will definitely be returning for his fourth season as the team’s coach. There was criticism of the way he used goalies Kari Lehtonen and Johan Hedberg during the playoffs.
Lehtonen, the No. 1 netminder, gave up a soft goal in the opener and was replaced by Hedberg. The backup played well in Game 2, but Hartley went back to Lehtonen when the series shifted to New York.
Talk about a move backfiring: The 23-year-old Finn was bombarded in a 7-0 loss, and it really didn’t matter who started the final game (Hedberg, for the record).
“If you go into this job scared, you need to be doing something else,” Hartley said.
Besides, goaltending was hardly the only weakness in the playoffs. New York controlled the puck and shut down Atlanta’s stars, especially Marian Hossa (no goals, one assist) and Slava Kozlov (zero points). They were the Thrashers’ top two scorers during the regular season, combining for 180 points.
“Your best players have to be your best players,” Tkachuk said tellingly.
Hossa, who had 43 goals and 100 points before the playoffs, willingly accepted the blame for his lacklustre performance. He said the Thrashers spent too much time chasing the Rangers instead of handling the puck.
“If you play well, the people are cheering for you,” he said. “If you don’t play well, people are going to criticize you. That’s fine with me. We didn’t play well. We didn’t create many chances.”
Waddell will spend plenty of time on the phones during the off-season. The Thrashers have 13 unrestricted free agents, including Tkachuk, Kozlov, centre Eric Belanger, winger Pascal Dupuis and defencemen Greg de Vries and Andy Sutton.
Also, captain Scott Mellanby is expected to retire after a two-decade-long career.
“I want to take a couple of days to be sure, but I’m 99 per cent there,” the 40-year-old winger said. “I still feel like I can play the game. It’s all the outside stuff, the training, the preparation. I don’t think I’m prepared to go through that again.”
Each of Mellanby’s teammates made a point to shake his hand on the ice after Wednesday’s game, and there were some tears shed in the locker room. A day later, everyone still felt like they let their captain down.
“For him to go out that way, we should feel responsible as a team,” Tkachuk said. “He’s a guy that I learned a lot from. I hope all the young guys cherished the time they had with him. He’s a trouper.”
Tkachuk was reluctant to talk about his future, though he quickly shot down speculation he’s planned all along to return to the Blues. The Thrashers gave up a first-round pick to get him for the playoff drive, and they would have to surrender another if they manage to re-sign him this summer.
Tkachuk played well for the Thrashers, centring a line that included 42-goal scorer Ilya Kovalchuk.
“I don’t know what’s going to happen,” Tkachuk said. “I’m not even thinking about that. It still hurts right now being out of the playoffs.”
Waddell will likely put together a younger, faster roster. The lineup used against the Rangers averaged nearly 31 years of age. The Thrashers are hoping that several of their top minor-league and European prospects can earn spots next season.
At least Atlanta has most of its major positions covered. Kovalchuk and Hossa are under contract. So are defensive stalwarts Alexei Zhitnik and Niclas Havelid. And both goalies are signed for next season.
Hartley said he’s not worried about Lehtonen’s confidence being shaken by his rocky performance in the playoffs. The youngster played 68 games during the regular season with a 2.79 goals-against average and .912 save percentage.
“He’s our present and he’s our future,” Hartley said. “Two games does not make a career.”
But four straight losses does end a season.