ATLANTA – Carolina goaltender Cam Ward couldn’t believe the Hurricanes failed to hold a two-goal lead in the third period.
After all, they were playing the NHL’s worst home team.
“They kept coming,” Ward said. “They didn’t have as much to lose as we did. They looked more like a team playing for a playoff spot than we did. There are teams to be caught.”
Rich Peverley scored two of Atlanta’s four third-period goals, and Ilya Kovalchuk had two goals and three assists in the Thrashers’ 5-3 victory over the Hurricanes on Saturday night.
Carolina, which had won seven of nine, remained tied with Buffalo for the eighth place in the Eastern Conference.
The Thrashers, who have an NHL-low 24 points at home, won at Philips Arena for just the sixth time in 22 games.
Peverley pulled the Thrashers within one at 10:25 of the third period, Todd White tied it with 6:03 left, and Peverley put Atlanta in front on a power play with 1:28 remaining. Kovalchuk added an empty-netter for his 34th goal.
“Tonight is a good confidence boost,” Peverley said. “In our last (19) games, we want to play well and consistent.”
Tuomo Ruutu and Sergei Samsonov each scored in the first to put Carolina ahead 2-0, and Anton Babchuk added a power-play goal early in the third.
Kari Lehtonen made 32 saves to improve to 13-19-3.
“We never gave up,” Lehtonen said. “In the third period, we started playing better. We got lots of shots. It was looking like the game would be tough to come back (in), but we got some nice goals at the end.”
Kovalchuk allowed Peverley to control the puck along the left boards and beat defenceman Joe Corvo in the left circle. Once he had Corvo behind him, Peverley skated into the slot and lifted the puck over Ward’s right shoulder to make it 4-3.
Now if the Thrashers could just manage to play an entire three periods as fiercely as they went against Carolina in the third.
“It seems all season long we have been great in the third, but sometimes we give up too much in the first two and we can’t catch them,” Kovalchuk said. “If we can play like that all game, we will win a lot.”
Atlanta coach John Anderson knows the franchise was right to name Kovalchuk’s the NHL’s most prolific scorer since he was drafted No. 1 overall in 2001, as team captain Jan. 11.
“I think he’s just playing harder,” Anderson said. “He wants it. You can see it in his eyes. That’s when you know he’s going to play a good game. In the last period, he took over, and every time he touches the puck you see that spark in his eyes, and you know the other team better watch out.”
Ward made his 11th straight start, but lost for the first time in his last four against the Thrashers after stopping 27 of 31 shots.
“I was disappointed in the third period,” said Ward, whose record dropped to 26-21-3. “That was the worst one we’ve had this year. Maybe we ran out of gas.”
Babchuk’s eighth goal came on a power play early in the third to give the Hurricanes a 3-1 lead, but little went right for Carolina in the final 18:19.
“We had some defensive breakdowns,” coach Paul Maurice said. “We were running thin at the end. We’re leaving this one here.”
Notes: The Thrashers improved to 17-29-10 against Carolina, 7-15-6 at Philips Arena. … In 44 games against Carolina, Kovalchuk has 29 goals and 25 assists. … The Hurricanes are 11-7-0 since their five-game losing streak ended Jan. 17. … Eric Staal had two assists, giving him 11 points in the last nine games.