After waiting 19 years for the NHL to return, the people of Atlanta showed they're willing to be patient with the expansion Thrashers.
As the final seconds ticked away Saturday, the sellout crowd at Philips Arena rose in unison to salute its team on the historic opening night. It didn't seem to matter that the New Jersey Devils skated off with a 4-1 victory.
"That was incredible," general manager Don Waddell said. "I think that shows the fans are ready for this and they're going to be very supportive of this hockey club."
"We did a lot of things right," said 35-year-old Ray Ferraro, one of the few prominent Thrashers on a roster filled with nondescript players. "We did more good things than bad things. That's how you climb the ladder. I know it's the oldest cliche in the book, but it's true: Rome wasn't built in a day."
After an earsplitting pregame show that included fireworks, lasers and the Thrashers mascot dropping from the ceiling on a cable, Hall of Famer Bernie Geoffrion dropped the ceremonial first puck an acknowledgment of the city's hockey heritage.
The Boomer was first coach of the Flames, who brought hockey to the Deep South in 1972 but moved to Calgary eight years later.
Atlanta's second ice age was greeted by 18,545 fans, many of them adorned in white Thrashers jerseys. They cheered everything even the Zamboni and launched their first chant of "Let's Go Thrashers!" barely a minute into the game at the new $23 million arena.
Clearly inspired, the Thrashers dominated play in the first period, outshooting the Devils 15-7. But Brodeur kept it scoreless with several nice saves, including a stop on Steve Staios from right in front of the net.
"Marty made a couple of saves that were all-star quality," Ferraro said. "While they were getting their legs under them, Marty kept them in the game."
The Devils, who had the best record in the Eastern Conference last season, didn't want to be the first team to lose to the Thrashers. They took control with two goals just 40 seconds apart in the second period.
"We were a little bit lucky to get away with a tie in the first period," Brodeur said. "The first goal we scored, it kind of relieved the pressure of getting beat by an expansion team."
That first goal was scored at 8:58 by Krzysztof Oliwa, who intercepted a horrible, cross-ice pass by Nelson Emerson just inside the blue line, broke in alone on Damian Rhodes and beat the Thrashers goalie with a shot on the stick side.
Then, at 9:38, Holik scored the first of his goals from the top of the face-off circle, besting Rhodes again on the stick side after taking a nice pass from John Madden in the corner.
Kelly Buchberger, already the answer to one trivia question as the Thrashers' first captain, forged into an even more memorable category by scoring the first goal in team history.
"It's an honor, no question," Buchberger said. "It would have been nicer if we had won the game."
Patrik Stefan, the top overall pick in the entry draft, fed a pass to Buchberger, who blasted a shot past Brodeur's glove as the goalie came sliding across the crease.
But any hope of a comeback faded at 6:31 of the third period when Sergei Brylin restored a two-goal lead for the Devils. With New Jersey forechecking the Thrashers nearly into submission, Sergei Nemchinov popped out from behind the net and slid a pass to Brylin, who shot it past the helpless Rhodes.
About six minutes later, Holik sent many in the crowd toward the exits when he took a pass from Randy McKay, broke in on Rhodes and flipped a backhander over his stick.
"We were more aggressive near the end of the game," Holik said. "We started making smarter plays. We took advantage of them being excited about starting a franchise."
For the fans who remained at the end, that excitement was evident in their final standing ovation. The main mission was accomplished: hockey was back in Atlanta.
"They're trying to build from the ground up," aid fan Alan Cowart, whose wife wore an old Atlanta Flames sweater. "We've got to give it time."
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