Kovalchuk unleashed

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Many people are going to jump to the conclusion that Ilya Kovalchuk's amazing run of goal-scoring -- nine in seven games -- is a direct result of the Atlanta Thrashers removing head coach Bob Hartley after the team's 0-6 start. Well, that assessment might be right for the wrong reasons.

You see, the coach and the prodigy co-existed for four-and-a-half seasons. Hartley brought needed structure and consistency to both a young franchise and a young player with star potential. But once it was clear that Kovalchuk had absorbed the lessons of accountability, his offensive verve wasn't quite the same. His kinetic dashes down the left wing -- once filled with the promise of brilliance -- became tempered, or even worse, predictable.

And that is the biggest difference with Kovalchuk's play right now. He has always competed and cared. Giving all he has each shift has always been part of his game. But as the former coach continued to layer structure and static plays upon Kovalchuk, Hartley unwittingly eroded his best player's greatest gift -- an artist's ability to create something out of nothing.

To do so, Kovalchuk must have the puck on his stick, forcing others to react to his freelance vision. That isn't straight-forward because every offensive foray is a unique experience as Kovy dangles and baits would-be defenders, either to get in position to rip a rising rocket of a wrist shot or, as is often the case, zip a perfectly placed laser pass to a wide open teammate. Being ready is tricky, with the puck coming at off-beat times, from angles not too often seen, and always in situations that are difficult to foresee -- for defenders and linemates. After all, there are very few artists. Even among the artistically inclined, there are differences in approach and execution.

For Kovalchuk, understanding the imporance of teammates and how all the different parts fit together came from having Scott Mellanby as captain as well as during the short time that Keith Tkachuk was a Thrasher last spring. Those two veterans seemed to have a profound effect on Kovalchuk's outlook in terms of remembering what he does well as a player and embracing it as it relates to the team. There are always things one can do to be a good teammate without losing one's sense of self.

As a result, Kovalchuk has been the Thrashers' best player from the first puck drop of the season. He's stood up for teammates in scrums, never talked about himself in interviews -- only giving the team perspective -- and cited the physical contributions of Eric Boulton and Chris Thorburn as catalysts when asked about the team's third period comeback from a 5-0 deficit in Ottawa last Thrusday when Kovalchuk scored his first hat trick in Atlanta's 6-4 defeat. Two nights later, he smoked the Lightning for three more in a 6-4 win. Oh, and by the way, Kovalchuk has willed his team back from the 0-6 abyss that could have gotten much worse as the Thrashers headed out on the road for seven straight, a trip that began Oct. 20. They won four of the seven.

All of this signals the next step in Kovalchuk's maturity and is independent of who happenes to be behind the bench. To that end, there is no correlation between Hartley's exit and Kovalchuk's heroics. What is different is that GM and interim head coach Don Waddell met with Kovalchuk and told him that he'd get minutes in situations where he could be a difference-maker. In other words, Waddell challenged Kovalchuk to be himself. That's not an approach that had been taken before.

Kovalchuk isn't the Thrashers' captain, but make no mistake, this is his team now. And the artist's signature stroke is back.

This is the first portion of the schedule that is a concentrated stretch of all-divisional play. Between now and Thanksgiving, teams will play roughly 25 percent of their games against divisional foes. With that kind of concentration, some teams can pull away with any kind of run -- the Hurricanes and Red Wings come to mind in the Southeast and Central Divisions respectively. The Thrashers look to climb back into contention after winning 6-4 at Tampa on Saturday for their first divisional win following three early defeats. Last season, Atlanta went 18-7-7 for 43 points in winning the division outright. That's why these November games across the NHL are of vital importance to the overall playoff picture.