The Atlanta Thrashers have won three straight games and are finally playing with some consistency defensively. But as they try to climb out of the Southeast Division cellar, they’re certainly not about to get any favors from their schedule.
If this weekend’s All-Star break wasn’t enough of a threat to break their momentum, the visiting Thrashers will be trying to snap a 12-game losing streak against Philadelphia on Wednesday, as Flyers goalie Antero Niittymaki looks to move to 12-0-0 all-time against Atlanta.
The Thrashers (17-25-5) have been among the league’s worst defensive teams all season, and their 3.56 goals-against average still ranks last in the NHL.
But they’ve shown signs of improvement during their first three-game winning streak since they won five straight in November, allowing just seven total goals in the three victories.
After an impressive 7-2 win at Nashville on Saturday, they beat Montreal 4-2 on Tuesday behind 34 saves from Kari Lehtonen.
“We have worked hard the last couple of games,” rookie defenseman Zach Bogosian said. “We need to not get a big head and keep things simple. Play every shift like it’s 0-0.”
The 18-year-old Bogosian had a goal and an assist for the second straight game Tuesday after the No. 3 overall pick in last summer’s draft was held scoreless in his first 11 NHL games.
Bogosian’s rookie season was interrupted by a broken leg, which he suffered on a hit by Philadelphia’s Darroll Powe in the Flyers’ 7-0 win on Oct. 28. Bogosian had less than a minute of ice time in that game before the injury, getting only a brief taste of what has been one of the most league’s most lopsided series.
Since their inception, the Thrashers are 4-24-3 with three ties against Philadelphia, losing their last 12 games since a 6-5 road win on Nov. 18, 2005. They’ve lost the last nine meetings in regulation, getting outscored 35-13 over that span.
Niittymaki has been in net for the bulk of it, winning all 11 of his starts and compiling a 1.64 GAA against the Thrashers.
“I really don’t know, I just feel comfortable playing against them,” Niittymaki said after Philadelphia’s 4-3 win over Atlanta on Nov. 16. “There’s no magic. Hopefully it stays that way.”
Despite backing up Martin Biron this season, Niittymaki’s success against the Thrashers will earn his second straight start. He made 32 saves in a 3-2 shootout win at Florida on Friday, helping the Flyers (24-12-9) avoid a third straight loss.
“It’s a very well publicized stat that he has, and I’m sure that’s motivation for them too,” Flyers coach John Stevens said. “… It’s going to take a good effort, because Atlanta is probably playing their best hockey of the season both offensively and defensively.”
Philadelphia’s offense ranks fifth in the NHL this season with 3.18 goals per game, but the unit has averaged just 2.0 goals since Christmas, with the team going 5-4-2 over that span.
The Flyers have three 40-point scorers, including one of the NHL’s two 30-goal scorers in Jeff Carter, but they’re still playing without center Danny Briere. Briere has played just once since Nov. 11 due to a groin injury, and despite a successful rehab stint in the minor leagues, he’s unlikely to return until after the All-Star break.
After Wednesday’s game, both teams are off until Jan. 27, with Carter and Atlanta’s Ilya Kovalchuk headed to Montreal for Sunday’s All-Star game.