The Last Word

AL STRACHAN

, Last Updated: 7:30 AM ET

Even though the teams of the Southeast Division generally are regarded as some of the National Hockey League's easiest pushovers, all but one of them has been to the Stanley Cup finals at least once in the past dozen years.

The lone exception? The Atlanta Thrashers. But this might be their year.

Tonight, the Maple Leafs will discover what a number of other teams already have discovered this season. The Thrashers can score. They play solid defence. And, for the first time in their history, they have superb goaltending.

In other words, they are awfully tough to beat -- so tough that it has happened only once in regulation time thus far (8-1-1-2).

Last year, playing most of the first half with goaltenders who were ranked fourth and fifth on their depth chart, the Thrashers started slowly. They made a stirring rush in the second half, but the gap was too great to overcome.

"Maybe we got a little momentum from our finish last year," coach Bob Hartley said after his team put an end to the Buffalo Sabres' 10-game win streak on Saturday.

"We got momentum and we got a lesson. Maybe we'd better start this race at the same time as the others if we want to finish in the front pack. So far, it has been pretty tough to be disappointed with our team."

Bobby Holik, one of the best two-way players in the game, says there are two major differences between this season's team and last season's.

"We are healthy so far and we play better as a team. We rely on 20 guys."

When Holik talks about the team being healthy, he is primarily referring to goaltender Keri Lehtonen.

SOLID GOALTENDING

"If you want to compete in the National Hockey League, you've got to have solid goaltending," Holik said. "You can do all you can do, but without solid goaltending you're going nowhere."

Still, it must be pointed out that all this talk of an impending great season for the Thrashers is coming from the media, not from the players themselves.

They're best described as cautiously optimistic, with the emphasis on "cautiously."

"I don't want to get ahead of the game," captain Scott Mellanby said. "I think we've got a good team. The goaltending is good. I think we knew last year we could score, and I think we're trying to play well defensively.

"We want to be like Buffalo or Edmonton and be able to play against anybody, but it's still early."

"We've played what, 10, 11 games?" Holik asked. "There's still 70 to go. We don't have the experience to play with a lead and stuff like that. It would be easy to get comfortable, but tomorrow is another day."

"It's a long season," Hartley added. "We'll keep our two feet planted on the ground. I like our team focus, but you don't make the playoffs or get to the Stanley Cup finals in October. There's still a long way to go. I like my team, but we still have lots of work to do."

Hartley never has been a defence-above-all coach. Naturally, you can't have success in the NHL without defence, and Hartley accepts that. But he likes offence and with Lehtonen in the nets, he can open the throttle just a little more.

"We're obviously taking a little bit more risk," he said. "We want to go. We don't want to sit down and protect one-goal leads. That has never been my thinking as a coach. Kari allows us to be a little bit more gamblers, to create some more opportunities."

So with the Thrashers having all these attributes, it would seem that the Leafs will have their hands full tonight.

Oh, and there's one more thing that hasn't been mentioned yet.

They also have Marian Hossa, who just happens to be the league's leading scorer. And Ilya Kovalchuk, who is one point behind.


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