[Update: As posted by several in comments, Radek Martinek's injury is worst case: Blown ACL, done for the year.]
The underlying mission that trumps all else for the Thrashers this year: Build a convincing case for captain and franchise player Ilya Kovalchuk to stay.
Imagine all the pain we've been through that resulted in John Tavares; then imagine the prospect of him walking away because he's just not buying what the club is selling. Then imagine Tavares getting hurt early in the pivotal, decision-making season.
The Thrashers are 2-2 since Kovalchuk broke his leg (2-3 if you count the San Jose game in which he was injured), and each loss was by one goal. One of the wins was through Ondrej Pavelec's 50-save effort. I talk about a thin margin of error for the Islanders; surely the same applies for Ilya-less Atlanta.
But the Thrashers did improve over the summer, and they have some good players beyond Ilya, and their special teams (27% PP, 84% PK) have been outstanding. It's just hard to imagine that being enough in this tight-standings age, when the cornerstone many of those players depend on will miss 15% of the season.
Offensively, leading scorer Rich Peverley (7-19-16) -- one of those stolen gems every rebuilding team needs -- has picked up right where he left off after being nabbed from the Predators last season. Summer addition Nik Antropov has an assist per game. "31-goal man" Bryan Little has come back down to earth a bit, but the jury is still out. Maxim Afinogenov has been, well, Maxim Afinogenov; his warts are part of the deal.
Of course, the one guy who is a stud no matter who his teammates are, defenseman Zach Bogosian, has as many goals as John Tavares.
Yet another injury to Kari Lehtonen -- practically Rick DiPietro without the contract -- means Pavelec has a chance to shine. In the two games I've watched him play this year (the 50-saver against Ottawa and a 1-1 shootout loss in Montreal), he's certainly done that.
The Bergenheim Chronicles
Peverley is an interesting case, because on the surface you couldn't blame Nashville for letting him slip away. Yet he immediately gelled with Atlanta and discovered how to produce at the NHL level when given the opportunity. Just as a rebuilding team needs "bonus" finds like Peverley, a team like the Predators can't afford to let too many Peverleys slip away.
Which brings me to goalless Sean Bergenheim, the topic du jour on last night's Islanders broadcast and one of those long-developing prospects who alternately teases and drives fans nuts. Now as a player, the hustling, physical, smart Bergenheim is nothing like Peverley, a playmaker. But as an asset, they are similar, in that there is something promising but incomplete that a rebuilding team can't afford to cast away.
Bergenheim's scoring touch might never evolve to match his billing as a 1st-round pick. A sneaky puckhandler, he's one of those guys who seems to lose his elusiveness when it comes to beating the goalie in tight. (That said, guys like that -- Calgary's Craig Conroy, for example -- tend to find their touch when given major minutes with skilled linemates.) But historically Bergenheim has been one of the Islanders' most responsible 5-on-5 forwards (though this year, a little less so); he may not score much, but unlike many of his teammates he's not giving up much either. Put him with more offensively skilled linemates, and he probably produces more (last night's setup of Frans Nielsen's goal, for example), which is why I suspect playing with Nielsen will eventually lead to more production.
But Gordon uses him as a go-to penalty killer and a third-line guy because Bergenheim can be counted on to make the opposition work while not giving up many goals. He and Nielsen together make a rather responsible Nordic tandem. If Trent Hunter comes back and joins that line, you'd be looking at a coach's dream for a 3rd line: "Two-way, responsible players with some offensive touch? I'll have a carton, please."
So while Bergenheim's scoring drought can be maddening, and while he probably sees himself as more of a scorer than he actually is, if he keeps playing the way he has been, goals will come and -- more importantly -- the Islanders will have an effective two-way forward they shouldn't give up on.
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Even without Kovalchuk, the Thrashers powerplay should be a good test for the Islanders PK, which will likely be missing Radek Martinek. But with a seven-game road trip staring the down through Thanksgiving, this Saturday night special in front of the home fans is one the Islanders absolutely must pull off.
Prediction: The Islanders come out flying and make us happy, and Bergenheim gets a point.