Johan Hedberg and Ilya Kovalchuk return to Atlanta Saturday

Johan Hedberg won’t see his family when he returns to Atlanta.

That’s because the wife and children of the former Thrashers goaltender will be waiting for him when he gets back to New Jersey following Saturday’s game.

The Hedbergs will spend Christmas together thanks to the winter school break in Gwinnett County. It will be a welcomed reunion for the family that has been separated by 900 miles and an NHL season.

Hedberg’s family remained in Duluth after he was not re-signed by the Thrashers. He inked a one-year contract with New Jersey as an unrestricted free agent during the offseason.

“We love Atlanta,” Hedberg said Friday. “I only signed a one-year deal. They were better off staying there and then re-evaluating next year. They have moved so much during their lives already. This was easier for them.

“This is different for me. I love being around my family as much as possible. It’s not easy coming home to an empty apartment.”

Hedberg, along with former Thrashers captain Ilya Kovalchuk, will return to Philips Arena on Saturday as New Jersey Devils for the first of four meetings between the teams this season. They will play again in New Jersey on Dec. 31 and then two games in March. Defenseman Anssi Salmela, who was involved in the trade with Kovalchuk, has recently been activated after knee surgery.

Hedberg has played against former teams before. But this will be different.

“In this scenario, it will be special,” Hedberg said. “I spent four years there. That was the longest of any team I played for. It will be a special feeling for sure.”

Hedberg has played 13 games this season, backing up Martin Brodeur. He is 4-6-1 with a 2.94 goals-against average and a .905 save percentage. He played in 11 of 14 games, including seven straight, during a stretch when Brodeur was injured.

“I started to feel pretty good and back in the swing,” said Hedberg, who was unsure if he will play Saturday. “Hopefully I can keep that feeling the next time I’m called upon.”

Hedberg said he keeps close tabs on the Thrashers and his happy with their success. He still talks frequently with defenseman Tobias Enstrom. One Thrasher he pays particular attention to is former goaltending partner Ondrej Pavelec.

“I always check to see how they are doing,” Hedberg said. “Pavs has been playing unbelievably. Hopefully, he’ll be human against us.”

The Devils have struggled this season. They have had salary cap issues after signing Kovalchuk to a 15-year, $100 million contract. Zach Parise has missed much of the season following knee surgery. The team that has made the playoffs 13 consecutive seasons is 14th out of 15 teams in the Eastern Conference.

Through 29 games (before Friday’s matchup with Nashville), Kovalchuk had just seven goals and 16 points this season. He had his first multi-goal game as a Devil on Wednesday, with two against Phoenix.

The first overall pick of the Thrashers in 2001 was traded to the Devils at last season’s trade deadline in February after eight seasons in Atlanta. He was booed in his first return to Philips Arena on April 6th last season.

“Like everybody else, it’s been tough for Ilya,” Hedberg said. “He is working really, really hard. He’s trying to work his way into scoring goals. Kovy is well liked in the [locker] room and he’s keeping a great attitude.”

Kovalchuk told The Record that he is also happy to see his former team doing well.

“It’s nice,” Kovalchuk told the newspaper. “They made a lot of changes there and it’s worked out good for them. I had a good eight years there and they did everything they could for me to make it feel like home.”

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