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News - The first priority? A No. 1 goalie

Thrashers seek a worthy keeper

No, Curt Fraser is not thinking of calling up Scott Fankhouser from Orlando. But the Thrashers coach is thinking of stapling Damian Rhodes and Milan Hnilicka together so he'll have one consistent goaltender.
I know, I know: The Thrashers have lost more than 200 man-games to injury, the second highest total in the National Hockey League. And being a young team, they're pretty low on the spare parts. Half of the guys in Orlando, the Thrashers' International Hockey League affiliate, could be good some day, but that day is not coming this season. The other half are probably on their way out of the NHL; Ruman Ndur, lately shunted off to Norfolk of the American Hockey League, springs to mind.
But injuries and lack of depth aren't responsible for the Thrashers' winless January. Goaltending is. Or, rather, the lack of it.
It shouldn't be news that a team's No. 1 goalie started back-to-back games, but that's the bulletin coming out of this weekend's Devils and Islanders games. Better than back-to-backs, even: Rhodes started on consecutive days, on the road at New Jersey on Saturday and at home against New York on Sunday, putting a temporary end to the insanity of alternating him and Hnilicka. In the last month, we've seen the bizarre spectacle of the two of them capable of playing well only in relief of each other. Unfortun-ately, if Fraser is yanking one for the other, it means that the Thrashers are already down at least three goals. Sometimes four.
Rhodes is one of only four Thrashers making more than $1 million a year (the others are Ray Ferraro, Donald Audette and Patrik Stefan). He was announced as the very first Thrasher. (Technically, he wasn't, but saying you've inked Ohio State's Hugo Boisvert doesn't have quite the same cachet.) On top of that, he wears the number 1, indicative of the fact that general manager Don Waddell was counting on him to be the team's linchpin.
But Rhodes missed half of last season with an ankle injury that was slow to heal and made him flex tentatively long after the pain was gone. This season promised to answer the side question of who was better, Rhodes or Ron Tugnutt. They were Ottawa's two-headed netminder two seasons ago, each playing as well as the other. Waddell was convinced he had grabbed a winner when he picked up Rhodes in the expansion draft.
Meanwhile, the Columbus Blue Jackets, one of this year's two expansion teams, signed Tugnutt. The B-Jackets got off to a roaring start, thanks to Tugnutt, but since then they have had roughly the same record as the Thrashers. Not that this matters, since nagging knee and groin injuries have cost Rhodes six weeks this season and once again thwarted the comparison with his buddy.
While Rhodes was out, rookie back-up Hnilicka was tossed into the fray with stunning results, relative to what was expected of him, and especially relative to last year's back-up model, Norm — What, me train? — Maracle. Tough, fast, flexible and confident, Hnilicka was so reliable that people stopped asking when Rhodes was coming off the injured list.
Then Rhodes did come off the injured list, and the tag-teaming ensued. But Hnilicka faltered, suddenly losing his confidence. So here we are, wondering once again who's No. 1.
Rhodes is paid to be No. 1, and it's time he was. But, No. 1 goalies play 50 games in a row and no one notices. Rhodes may not be Patrick Roy, but he's the Thrashers' Patrick Roy, so Fraser, his team winless in January, is biting the bullet and penciling Rhodes in.
In two games — a 3-2 loss to the Stanley Cup Champion Devils and a 4-4 tie with the struggling Islanders — Rhodes has been good. But is that good enough?
Not if the Thrashers still harbor hopes of squeaking into the playoffs. Especially not without their top scoring line intact — winger Andrew Brunette is still suffering from the effects of a concussion, and he's only one of nine Thrashers out at the moment.
The Thrashers have nothing to lose by throwing Rhodes in goal at every opportunity. Why waste another season wondering whether he's The One?
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