Kovalchuk lifts Thrashers past Sabres

ATLANTA (AP) — With time running out on Buffalo’s playoff
hopes, Thomas Vanek couldn’t believe he gave the puck away to
Ilya Kovalchuk.

“I gave their best player a breakaway to lose the game for us,”
Vanek said after the Sabres were beaten by the Atlanta Thrashers
3-2 in overtime Wednesday night. “It’s disappointing. It’s tough
when you let your teammates down like that.”

Kovalchuk scored on an unassisted breakaway with 29.9 seconds
left in overtime to give Atlanta the win.

Vanek was near the blue line and was trying to make a pass into
his team’s zone, but he bounced the puck off Kovalchuk’s skate.

Sabres goaltender Ryan Miller stepped to the top of the crease
to try and stop Kovalchuk, whose wrister went under the goalie’s
legs. The goal was Kovalchuk’s 41st and gave him 30 in 37 games.

“I tried to go hard to the goal and go for the No. 5 hole, and
it went in,” Kovalchuk said. “It’s a very good win.”

Buffalo had a three-game winning streak snapped. With 83 points,
the Sabres are four behind ninth-place Florida and five behind
Montreal and the playoff cutoff in the Eastern Conference.

Of Buffalo’s final six opponents, four are among the top five
teams in the East. The Sabres will also play defending Stanley
Cup champion Detroit, the No. 2 team in the West.

“It’s a tough point to lose,” coach Lindy Ruff said. “We had the
opportunity to win it. Derek (Roy) had his breakaway. (Jason)
Pominville had the great opportunity off the faceoff. (Jaroslav)
Spacek had another great opportunity and didn’t score. If you
don’t finish those off, you end up losing a point.”

Atlanta has won three straight and 10 of 13.

Vanek scored twice to give him 37 goals for Buffalo, which began
the game with the NHL’s third-best power play on the road. Those
brief accomplishments were wiped out, however, by Kovalchuk.

“It was a stupid play,” Vanek said. “Get it low, and give my
teammates a chance to get the extra point.”

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Thrashers rookie defenseman Zach Bogosian’s seventh goal, a
wrister from the top of the right circle, forced a 1-1 tie 8:36
into the third. The NHL’s third overall draft pick was one of
four Thrashers penalized for roughing in the second. Officials
had to separate Bogosian and Buffalo center Dominic Moore as the
two exchanged shoves after the period ended.

“We are playing the spoiler role, I guess,” Bogosian said. “We
are trying to play our hearts out. Hopefully we can do some
damage around the league. We are showing right now that we are
not a team to take lightly.”

Atlanta’s penalty-killing unit, which ranked 29th at home,
couldn’t overcome a two-man disadvantage that began 12:50 into
the second when Garnet Exelby went to the box for roughing.
Vanek’s wrister from the top of the slot 1:06 later made it 2-2.

Vanek’s first goal, swept in from below the right circle, beat
goalie Johan Hedberg’s glove side.

Slava Kozlov was in the crease when he poked in his 25th goal to
give the Thrashers a 2-1 lead midway through the second.

Miller, who dropped to 8-4-1 in his last 13 games and 31-17-5
overall, stopped 27 shots, but none of those meant much after
Kovalchuk beat him.

“I tried to cheat the five-hole,” Miller said. “He got it up
over my stick and hit me straight in the pad right above where
the knee break is and powered it through.”

Hedberg, who improved to 12-10-3, made 30 saves. The Thrashers
No. 1 goalie, Kari Lehtonen, has missed two straight games with
an undisclosed upper-body injury.

Notes: Atlanta is 12-3-3 against the Sabres at home, and the
Thrashers have won the last five in the series — three in
shootouts and two in overtime. … Vanek has 19 power-play
goals, tied with Calgary’s Michael Cammalleri for the NHL lead.
… Kovalchuk has five goals and 10 assists in his last six
games. With 41 goals overall, he’s tied with Philadelphia’s Jeff
Carter for third-most.