Tuesday, April 6, 2010

Devils Look to Push Thrashers out of Playoff Picture

By: Tim Brennan

It's that time again when every team that is in the playoff picture buckles down to make sure that they get a chance to go after hockey's coveted prize, the Stanley Cup. The Devils, like always, sit comfortably in the top rung of the Eastern Conference, currently in 2nd place. A big win against the Hurricanes on Saturday pushed them into the Atlantic Division lead for the time being. Meanwhile the Thrashers are fighting for their lives to claim a spot, sitting three points behind the 8th place team, the Philadelphia Flyers. The Thrashers have run into a wall in the past two games in the Washington Capitals and Pittsburgh Penguins and face some of the toughest teams in the East for their last three games starting tonight against New Jersey.

What makes this matchup so appealing is that it will be Ilya Kovalchuk's return to Atlanta since the superstar was traded on February 4th. The Thrashers acquired rookie Niclas Bergfors, defenseman Johnny Oduya, prospect Patrice Cormier and a 1st round pick in that deal. Both Bergfors and Oduya have picked up their games and the change of scenery has been beneficial to not only their careers but the team's success as well. Bergfors had 17 points in 54 games with the Devils before being sent to Atlanta, where since then, he's gone on a tear with 17 points in 24 games while playing alongside Nik Antropov. Oduya picked up his game as well, going from 4 points and a +2 in 40 games with New Jersey to 9 points and +9 in 24 games in Atlanta.

And just how the newcomers have helped out the Thrashers, Ilya Kovalchuk has provided a strong impact on the Devils. Although he struggled to find the back of the net early on in the red and white, Kovalchuk picked up his game and is on a hot streak with 11 points in his last 7 games. It's understandable that a star player like Kovalchuk would stumble early on due to New Jersey's defense first system. But now that Kovalchuk has overcome that rough patch, the Devils have allowed him to do what he has done before, just as long as he makes sure to get back defensively and help out. With Kovalchuk in the lineup, the Devils pack a 1-2 punch with him and Zach Parise.

The Thrashers will do whatever it takes to get a win tonight and the Devils, especially Kovalchuk, will be looking to deny them the opportunity of a playoff berth. It's important to the Devils to make sure that they don't come into this game thinking that this will be no problem and an automatic win. The Thrashers are a hungry team and even with a few key players out with injury, will still take it to the Devils and try to prove everyone wrong. For the Thrashers to keep themselves in the hunt, they need to bother Martin Brodeur and get him off of his game and need to get the first goal to give themselves momentum. The Devils need to expose the Thrashers injury problems and force the inexperienced players to make mistakes.

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