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Red-hot Thrashers 11-4 since GM Don Waddell took over behind the bench

Don Waddell woke up Thursday and couldn't help but crack a smile as he took a look at the NHL's Eastern Conference standings.

His Atlanta Thrashers were sitting in the eighth and final playoff spot exactly five weeks after looking up at the rest of the league with a disastrous 0-6-0 start that cost Bob Hartley his job as head coach.

"I'm so proud of the guys, we dug ourselves this big hole and we were able to fight back," Waddell told The Canadian Press. "If the playoffs started today, we'd be in. It's pretty amazing."

It sure is. Even more improbable is that the Thrashers GM is still behind the bench as head coach. It was supposed to be on an interim basis. But going 11-4-0 under his helm made him change his mind. Last week he called off the search for a head coach for the rest of the season.

"I think from a players' perspective, in the back of their mind they're always wondering, 'Who's coming in? Am I going to play...' It got to a point where I just thought we needed to get rid of that," said Waddell.

Had someone told Waddell back on Oct. 17, when he took over behind the bench, that the Thrashers would go from 0-6-0 to 11-10-0 in just over a month, he admits he probably would not have believed it.

"First I would have told you Scotty Bowman's not available," Waddell said with a hearty laugh.

"It's been a lot of fun," added Waddell. "The guys are doing a tremendous job. And when you're winning it makes it that much easier. I can't say enough good things about the players on this team and what they're doing for us."

The Thrashers didn't catch fire right away when the change was made, going 2-2-0 before what Waddell calls the turning point, a 3-2 win at Chicago on Oct. 27. That started a 9-2-0 run.

"Ever since we won in Chicago that night, the guys truly believe they can win," said Waddell. "When I made the coaching change, I told the players just because we're changing the voice back here doesn't mean your game is going to get better. It's up to you guys to be accountable to each other.

"I really stress the respect factor for your teammates. Sure, when you're losing you're letting me down, the fans down, ownership down, but the person you don't want to let down is your teammate. The respect for teammates is truly what I believe the guys are feeding off."

Waddell points to a game a few weeks back against Tampa Bay when Marian Hossa, stuck in scoring slump at the time, scored a goal.

"Guys always come by the bench to give a high-five after a goal," said Waddell. "Well, he came by the bench and Kovalchuk grabbed him and gave him a big hug. Kovalchuk was the happiest guy on the bench when Hossa scored, he jumped right up.

"And to me, that's a good sign for our hockey club."

Hossa has caught fire after a sluggish start, in part because Waddell reunited him with Ilya Kovalchuk on the top line centred by Todd White. There's always the thought that having Hossa and Kovalchuk on different lines spreads out the offence, but...

"Sure it's a nice thought that you're going to separate them but when you're not scoring goals, to me the best thing is try and load up one line," said Waddell. "A lot of teams try to play head to head with their big lines or checking lines, and with these guys, it doesn't seem to matter who they're playing against."

After a slow start, Hossa has lit it up for 16 points (7-9) in his last nine games.

"He's been a big part of our success," said Waddell. "He's had six straight multiple-point games. It's kind of gone unnoticed because of the other guy."

Yes, the other guy, Kovalchuk, has exploded with 33 points (19-14) in 21 games, which was second in NHL scoring before Thursday's games.

"We're starting to make him a player," joked Waddell.

"But seriously, he's responded tremendously," added Waddell. "The one thing about Kovy is, yes he loves to score goals, but he's got tremendous passion to win. The guys are feeling it. Yeah he scores two two goals and has two assists last night (in a 5-1 win over Washington) but the most important thing for him was winning the hockey game because he's a proud player and wants to be part of a winning organization."

Whether or not Hossa will remain part of that same organization is the multi-million dollar question hanging over the Thrashers right now. He's an unrestricted free agent July 1 and other teams have already called to say they'd be interested if Waddell ever decides to move him.

He'd rather not.

"I've had good meetings with his representation, Ritch Winter, and we continue to talk, and that's a positive thing," said Waddell. "Winning hockey games is the biggest assistance I can have in this negotiation."

Meanwhile, the Thrashers hope to build a buzz in their market place. Atlanta ranks 22nd in NHL home attendance with an average of 15,154 through eight games.

"I will say this, we'll be sold out tomorrow night (against New Jersey), which will be our third sellout," said Waddell. "This time of the year in this market place, that's a good sign for us. You can see the excitement in this building."


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