By Zane Miller
On Sunday, April 10th, 2011, the Pittsburgh Penguins defeated the Atlanta Thrashers 5-2 in the final NHL game played at Philips Arena so far, as the Thrashers relocated at the end of the season to become the Winnipeg Jets.
On Thursday, June 5th, 1997, Philips Arena (now State Farm Arena) broke ground as construction began on the new facility, as the arena was intended to replace the Omni Coliseum, which was also in Atlanta and had opened in 1972 and was closed on May 11th, 1997.
Meanwhile, the prospect of a brand new arena brought in interest for a new National Hockey League franchise, as Atlanta was granted an NHL team on Wednesday, June 25th, 1997. Coincidentally, the very next day saw the demolition of the Omni Coliseum.
Prior to the new team’s first season, which would be for 1999-2000, the Atlanta Thrashers name was selected as a result of a fan vote. On Saturday, September 18th, 1999, Philips Arena officially opened to the public, however the first regular season game for the Thrashers would not be until October of that same year.
The Thrashers started off with a 14-61-7 record (.187 win percentage) in their debut season, which still stands as the worst for the Thrashers/Jets franchise as of this writing. The team struggled throughout the first half of their tenure in Atlanta, finishing with losing records in each of their first five seasons in the league. The primary bright spot for the Thrashers was forward Ilya Kovalchuk, whom the team drafted with the first overall pick in 2001 and had quickly put together a pair of solid seasons, scoring 38 and 41 goals in 2002-03 and 2003-04 respectively.
Following the 2004-05 lockout, the Thrashers came out with their first non-losing season in 2005-06, claiming a 41-41 record. While the team missed the playoffs for that season, their stronger showing than in years prior would help them build momentum for 2006-07.
Atlanta scored a 43-39 record in 2006-07, not only giving them their first winning record in franchise history, but also allowing them to reach the 2007 playoffs. Their first round opponent would be the New York Rangers, coming in with a 42-40 record. However, Atlanta would not be able to capitalize on their postseason appearance, as they were unable to score a win in the series with the Rangers sweeping them four games to none. New York moved on to the second round, although they would be eliminated in six games by the Buffalo Sabres.
The Thrashers would not be able to reach their 2006-07 peak throughout the remainder of their time in Atlanta, with their next four seasons resulting in losing records along with no playoff appearances. Coming into their last game of the 2010-11 season, Atlanta sat with a 34-47 record. While the Thrashers were out of playoff contention, the Pittsburgh Penguins, on the other hand, were solidly inside the postseason with a 48-33 showing.
Starting in goal for Pittsburgh would be league veteran Brent Johnson. While fellow Penguins goaltender Marc-Andre Fleury saw most of the starts for the Penguins that season, Johnson performed well in his share of games with a 12-8 record and .920 save percentage. Atlanta sent out their backup in Chris Mason, who would be looking to build upon a 13-15 record before heading into the offseason.
Early on in the contest, it looked as though the Thrashers would be able to finish the season on a high note, with forward and team captain Andrew Ladd scoring on the power play just over four minutes in. The Penguins would not answer in the rest of the first period, with the Thrashers taking a 1-0 advantage into the locker room.
Starting with the second period, however, Pittsburgh would be denied no longer as forward Tyler Kennedy added a power play goal of his own at the 6:25 mark, followed up by forward Pascal Dupuis taking the lead for the Penguins as he scored at 10:53. The team kept the momentum going as forward Mike Rupp scored at 15:27 to make it a 3-1 game, before forward Mark Letestu tacked on another goal at 18:14. When the dust settled, Pittsburgh held a 4-1 lead going into the third period.
In the third, Atlanta continued to fight with their final goal as the Thrashers scored on the power play courtesy of forward Tim Stapleton at 13:15. However, Pittsburgh slammed the door on any comeback attempt with 1:28 to go in the game, as forward Mike Comrie scored an empty net goal to put the Penguins ahead by three once again. Not only was this Comrie’s first goal of the season, but it would also be his final goal scored during his career.
The Penguins claimed the 5-2 victory to finish the season at 49-33, while the Thrashers fell to 34-48 with the loss. The Penguins would face the Tampa Bay Lightning in the first round of the 2011 playoffs, although their playoff run would not be as successful as their regular season with Tampa Bay winning the series in seven games.
On Tuesday, May 31st, 2011, it was formally announced that the Atlanta Thrashers would be relocating to Winnipeg, Manitoba to become the Jets, essentially reviving the team that had played in the NHL from the 1979-80 season until 1995-96. However, unlike other facilities that I have covered in this series, State Farm Arena is still in business to this day, as the arena still hosts the NBA’s Atlanta Hawks. Due to this fact, I wouldn’t rule out the possibility of the NHL returning to the facility at some point, most likely as a one-off exhibition game. However, a full-time team returning to State Farm Arena is far more unlikely at this point.
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