ATLANTA – Ilya Kovalchuk came out shooting against the NHL’s most porous defence.
Kovalchuk scored two goals for the first time in two months, giving him 30 for the season, and the Atlanta Thrashers beat Toronto 4-3 on Tuesday night to extend the Maple Leafs’ road woes. Kovalchuk had five two-goal games in his first 10 games, but none since Nov. 13. He took a season-high eight shots against the Maple Leafs.
“That was the best game I’ve seen Kovy play in two weeks,” said Thrashers coach John Anderson of Kovalchuk, who also had an assist.
“I guess he felt good,” Anderson said. “He always plays good, but that was something special.”
Kovalchuk missed six games with a broken foot early in the season.
The Thrashers scored four straight goals after Alexei Ponikarovsky’s two first-period goals for Toronto in a span of 32 seconds.
“We had a slow start and they got two goals, but we found a way to win,” Kovalchuk said.
Rich Peverley’s power-play goal at 1:58 of the third period broke a 2-2 tie. Kovalchuk’s second goal gave Atlanta a 4-2 lead 4:20 into the third period.
Toronto’s Niklas Hagman scored 1:23 later, but Ondrej Pavelec, who stopped 37 shots, held on for his third win in his past four starts.
The Thrashers stopped a power play in the final one minute 49 seconds.
“Pavelec made some unbelievable saves and the penalty kill stopped them in the final minute,” Kovalchuk said. “It was a team effort. If we work like we did tonight, we’re going to win a lot of games.”
The Maple Leafs have won only two of their last 12 road games, including their 4-3 win at Nashville on Monday night.
Toronto coach Ron Wilson said his team was in good position before being hurt by eight penalties and sloppy play.
“Generally, I felt like we did a good job tonight,” Wilson said. “We just shot ourselves in the foot a little bit with penalties. We controlled the game but turned the puck over and gave up some soft goals and it hurt us.”
The Maple Leafs were stopped on each of their five power-play chances, including being denied for 58 seconds in the second period with a two-man advantage.
“This game was a character-builder for us,” Peverley said.
Toronto has allowed 13 goals in the first three games of its five-game road trip. It leads the league with 177 goals allowed.
Kovalchuk said it’s crucial the Thrashers move up in the standings before the Olympic break.
“Before the Olympics, we have to be in the playoffs,” Kovalchuk said. “We have a lot of home games in March. It’s a good schedule for us, so we have to hang in there before the Olympics.”
The Thrashers are operating under another deadline – their effort to re-sign Kovalchuk before he becomes an unrestricted free agent.
Vesa Toskala stopped 28 shots in his first regulation loss in nine career games against Atlanta.
Kovalchuk and Evander Kane had second-period goals for Atlanta.
Ponikarovsky continued his history of strong play against the Thrashers. He had two goals and an assist in Toronto’s 5-2 home win over the Thrashers on Dec. 7. He has 15 goals – more than against any other team – in 21 career games against Atlanta.
“He is playing well,” Wilson said of Ponikarovsky. “Obviously, that line has scored some goals for us. We can’t have other guys letting us down by giving up goals.”
Kovalchuk, who had a streak of goals in three straight games end with Monday night’s 1-0 loss at Florida, fired a shot from beyond the left circle past Toskala for the Thrashers’ first goal 2:43 into the second period. His third-period goal was deflected into the net off Toskala’s pads.
Garnet Exelby, who played for Atlanta from 2002-09, made his return to Philips Arena with the Maple Leafs.
NOTES: Toskala fell to 6-1-2 against the Thrashers. … Kane ended a streak of eight games without a goal. … Thrashers C Todd White (knee) missed his fourth straight game. D Christoph Schubert was a scratch for the second straight game after suffering a knee injury Saturday against Carolina. … Pavelec is 3-0-1 in his past four starts.