18 November 2007

Best! News! In a month!

Lehtonen practices for first time in a month
Thrashers won't rush goalie's return; Waddell expects him to be out two more weeks

The Atlanta Journal-Constitution
Published on: 11/19/07

Thrashers goalie Kari Lehtonen practiced with the team on Sunday for the first time since injuring his groin against the New York Rangers exactly one month ago. His timing, evidently, is still day to day.

"It was kind of up and down a lot. ... I was hoping it was going to be easier," Lehtonen said. "I don't know how long it's going to take to get [the timing back]. That was the only problem."

But in the big scheme of things, how he did on the ice isn't important. One thing is. There wasn't any pain after 90 minutes of practice so his focus is solely on working himself back to the level he was at when he got hurt.

"It's been a long month, but it was great today to come here when everybody else comes and not three hours before," Lehtonen said. "It's fun to be a part of the team."

And suddenly it's a team that will have three capable goalies. According to general manager and interim head coach Don Waddell, Lehtonen's return to the lineup won't be rushed. In the past, he said, Lehtonen might have been hurried to action this week. But not now.

Johan Hedberg is coming off his first shutout with the Thrashers and will get the start tonight against Tampa Bay. He's 4-0 in his last five starts and with his shutout in Carolina, dropped his goals against average to 2.38 in November.

Rookie Ondrej Pavelec is 3-1 in four starts and has a 2.71 GAA on the season. His only other loss came in a relief appearance against Ottawa.

Those two are a big reason why Waddell doesn't anticipate Lehtonen returning to live action for at least two weeks.

"We have the luxury of both guys playing well," Waddell said. "We want to make sure we're being fair to Kari and give him enough time to get ready. Also, we want to be fair to the hockey club too that when we do put [Lehtonen] in the net, he's ready to go."

When Lehtonen does return, he'll have a different team playing in front of him. As strong as Pavelec and Hedberg have played, a big reason they've had success is the fact that the team is playing a stronger defensive game.

Hedberg credited the play of his teammates for the shutout against the Hurricanes, calling it the best defensive game of the year. Waddell noted the teams' 27 blocked shots against Carolina. Niclas Havelid and Garnet Exelby each blocked six shots. By comparison, the Hurricanes had a total of nine blocked shots as a team.

"We're collapsing around the net," Waddell said. "[Marian Hossa] blocked a big shot, [Ilya Kovalchuk] blocked a big shot in the third. Those are the intangibles that when you see guys doing that, you know they've bought into what you're trying to do."

The Thrashers, 7-3 in their last 10 games, also outshot an opponent for the first time all season against Florida on Tuesday. It'll need to continue if they hope to beat a surging Lightning team tonight, one that has won five consecutive games.

Tampa Bay also boasts the rare scorer in the NHL hotter than Kovalchuk and Hossa. Vincent Lecavalier has 19 points in Tampa Bay's last seven games.

But if the Thrashers win, they'll be at .500. If the win comes in regulation, they'll only be one point behind the second-place Lightning.

By the time Lehtonen returns to live game action, the team will likely be in much better shape than when he left.

"The last couple games they looked very good," Lehtonen said. "That's a huge improvement from the beginning of the year, which is great."


Welcome back, Lehts!

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