Feel-Good Story Tries to Avoid Foul Ending
Thrashers Play Through Tragedy and Injuries, but Playoffs Seem Unlikely
By Jason La Canfora
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, March 24, 2004; Page D05
On Dec. 26, the Atlanta Thrashers reached the pinnacle of their five-year history. They had just defeated Tampa Bay, the reigning Southeast Division champion, to pull five games over .500 for the first time. Atlanta's lead in the division reached eight points and it appeared the team's first playoff berth was but a few months away.
The Thrashers were the NHL's feel-good story, overcoming a fatal preseason accident in which the car of all-star forward Dany Heatley struck a wall, killing teammate Dan Snyder, 25, and putting Heatley's season in jeopardy. The Thrashers were beating more talented teams, riding the goal scoring of 20-year-old Ilya Kovalchuk and the goaltending of Pasi Nurminen.
But by the time Heatley, 23, returned from multiple surgeries to his knee and shoulder on Jan. 28, the Thrashers were in a freefall. They host the Capitals tonight at Philips Arena with their playoff hopes nearly extinct. Injuries, bad luck and an inevitable emotional letdown conspired to derail the Thrashers, who could still post the best season in their history despite missing their goal of reaching the playoffs.
"Mentally, the first half of the year was tough on everybody," General Manager Don Waddell said. "But when you're winning you play over those things and when you're losing that emotion catches up with you and mentally you become very tired. Then we lost three real key guys from our lineup and mentally we were a beat-up team and we weren't going to get out of it just by going out and working hard every night. We needed something else to happen to us."
Between Dec. 27 and Feb. 12 the Thrashers won two games, going 2-15-3-3 in a 23-game stretch. Defensemen Andy Sutton, Garnet Exelby and Frantisek Kaberle -- who provided over 20 minutes a night of steady play -- suffered serious injuries, as did top center Marc Savard, the gifted passer who makes Kovalchuk go.
"When we lost our defensemen, the tide really turned," Waddell said.
Six defensemen went down in all during that time, and the Thrashers have lost more than 370 man-games because of injury this season. As the problems mounted Waddell made a strong pitch to land defenseman Darryl Sydor and center Steve Sullivan via trades, NHL sources said, but with the team's ownership in transition, he was not granted permission to raise the payroll.
"Early in the season, with all that happened, they were playing on an emotional high," said Capitals defenseman Jean-Luc Grand-Pierre, who played 27 games for the Thrashers before being claimed on waivers. "And maybe they had kind of a letdown, from what I could tell. They were really hit hard by injuries and got the bad breaks at the time when teams like Tampa Bay and the Islanders got hot, and the slump went a little longer than everybody expected. That's what hurt the most."
Heatley rushed to rehabilitate from his injuries, all the while carrying immense personal baggage from the car accident, and surprised the hockey world by playing in late January. He was not fully recovered, however, and only recently has he begun to look like the burgeoning superstar who dominated the 2003 NHL All-Star Game.
The Thrashers could not help but expect an immediate lift from Heatley -- he had carried them so often in the past -- but the reality that he alone could not reverse their season felt like yet another setback.
"We are a young team and we don't have much experience," said winger Slava Kozlov, who won two Stanley Cups with Detroit. "And at that time we were hoping Dany Heatley was going to come back and win games for us."
Atlanta has been much improved recently, on a 9-5-2-2 surge. Nurminen regained his form, the defense is not as limited by injuries and the team could tie its franchise record by posting its 31st win tonight. While the playoff drive likely will come up short, the Thrashers have earned league-wide respect for their success in a time of great trauma and grief.
"This is the toughest situation, the toughest cards, I think any team can be dealt," Waddell said. "And I take my hat off to the players and the coaching staff; I think they have done a tremendous job."
© 2004 The Washington Post Company