ATLANTA - The Atlanta Thrashers knew that their early schedule would be a challenge. But they never thought that they'd find themselves in this much of a funk before things really got difficult.
The Thrashers take a 0-3-0 record into tonight's game at Buffalo and are off to their worst start since a 10-game winless start in 2002 that eventually led to the firing of expansion coach Curt Fraser.
"It's a bad start, but it's only three games," Thrashers winger Ilya Kovachuk said. "There's a long time left if we start playing better."
"We have to find a way to get out of this hole," coach Bob Hartley said. "No one will help us."
The Ottawa Senators (5-0-0) started a rookie backup goalie making his NHL debut and still beat Atlanta 3-1 Wednesday night a Philips Arena.
The Senators' Dany Heatley was booed almost every time he touched the puck against his old team, but the real disgust was directed at the Thrashers by their own fans.
Atlanta failed to put enough pressure on former University of Wisconsin goalie Brian Elliott early, getting just five shots in the first period. Given time to calm his nerves, the 291st pick in the 2003 draft got a victory in his first game.
"We came out flat," Thrashers defenseman Garnet Exelby said.
But it was actually the third period where the Senators took control despite the Thrashers' improved effort, getting goals from Antoine Vermette and Joseph Corvo.
Vermette scored what proved to be the game winner at 1:42 of the period, taking a pass off the boards and beating Thrashers goalie Kari Lehtonen after a turnover.
"That goal should have never happened," Hartley said.
"Before the game, we mentioned that turnovers would decide the game," Thrashers captain Bobby Holik said. "Their first two goals were off turnovers."
Kovalchuk scored in the first period, but that was the only time the Thrashers could get the puck by Elliott, whose only previous pro experience was eight games for Binghamton (AHL) late last season after finishing his career with the Badgers.
Elliott only played because Ray Emory is still recovering from offseason wrist surgery and Martin Gerber was being rested to start tonight against Carolina.
"When coach first told me I was going to start, it was a surprise," said Elliott, who made 28 saves.
"He looked really sharp," Ottawa coach John Paddock said.
Now the Thrashers begin a stretch of eight of the next 10 games on the road and they don't know when they'll have Marian Hossa back in the lineup.
Hossa, sidelined by a groin strain, won't play at Buffalo and may also be unavailable when the Thrashers host New Jersey on Saturday.
The right winger was certainly missed against Ottawa, his old team. He had 15 points in his first eight games against the Senators.
The Thrashers were able to contain Ottawa's potent top line of Heatley, Daniel Alfredsson and Jason Spezza, but it wasn't enough.
"That's the only thing that worked," Lehtonen said.
The Thrashers found themselves behind after the first shot of the game. Ottawa's Chris Kelly beat Atlanta defenseman Ken Klee to the puck near the blue line after a turnover, skated in alone and put a wrister past Lehonten 74 seconds in.
But Kovalchuk tied it with an unassisted goal of his own at 6:56 of the first period. He shot it off the boards, beat Senators defenseman Alton Volchenkov to the puck and then blasted a shot by Elliott. It was the left winger's 13th goal and 22nd point in 20 career games against Ottawa.
Already missing Hossa, the Thrashers got a scare just a few minutes later when Kovalchuk headed to the locker room favoring his right arm after colliding with the Senators' Mike Fisher. Kovalchuk returned for the second period, but that was about the only good news for the Thrashers on a frustrating night.
"There are not many reasons to be positive," Holik said.
The Thrashers have just four goals in the three losses. Last season's Southeast Division championship is starting to seem like a distant memory.