By Guy Curtright
ATLANTA - Supposedly back on track, the Atlanta Thrashers' playoff hopes are starting to slip away again.
So much for that drastic change of fortunes with general manager Don Waddell serving as interim coach.
The Thrashers have lost four straight and their season may yet be doomed before the New Year if they can't right themselves during a three-game homestand beginning tonight against Tampa Bay.
During the losing streak, the Thrashers have been outscored 22-9 and played nearly as badly as they did during a 0-6-0 start that got coach Bob Hartley fired.
The defense is shaky, the goaltending less than stellar and the offense still dependent on just Ilya Kovalchuk's line.
In other words, not much has changed for the better.
The Thrashers were 11-4-0 in Waddell's first 15 games as coach, but they are 3-7-1 in the 11 games since.
The slide has left them with a 14-17-1 record and 29 points - eight points behind Southeast Division leader Carolina. Worse, they are only a point ahead of last-place Washington in the five-team division.
The return of goalie Kari Lehtonen from a groin injury hasn't given the Thrashers a boost. Neither has the acquisition of veteran winger Mark Recchi, despite the two goals he scored in his first game with the team.
Kovalchuk leads the NHL with 26 goals, but that hasn't been enough to overcome the team's defensive problems and lack of scoring depth.
The team made one move Sunday, but that was just to send rookie winger Darren Haydar back to Chicago (AHL). Other moves may be coming soon, however. With defenseman Mark Popovic sidelined by an ankle injury, Steve McCarthy returned to the regular lineup and has a minus-19 rating in just 18 games. He isn't the only one struggling on the blue line, though. Alexei Zhitnik is minus-17.
In its 32 games, Atlanta has been out-shot 30 times.
The Thrashers obviously have to tighten up and tighten up fast. But it won't be easy.
After tonight's game with Tampa Bay, Ottawa comes to Philips Arena on Thursday and Montreal on Saturday.
The Thrashers have especially been exposed by Ottawa, being outscored 16-8 in three losses.
SideBar: LIGHTNING AT THRASHERS
' When: Today, 7 p.m.
' Where: Philips Arena
' TV/radio: SportSouth/680-AM