ATLANTA – Ilya Kovalchuk extended his lead in the NHL goal-scoring race, but he couldn’t find the net when it was just him and the goalie.
The Atlanta star scored his league-leading 36th goal but fired wide in the shootout, allowing Olli Jokinen to give the Florida Panthers a 3-2 win over the Thrashers on Thursday night.
With the shootout tied 1-1, Florida goalie Tomas Vokoun found himself facing one of the NHL’s most dangerous offensive players. Kovalchuk cut to his right, then back to his left before letting it go.
“I was just trying to read him. I thought he was going to shoot five-hole,” Vokoun said. “Once he started going over, I knew he was going to shoot it back where he came from.
“He missed the net.”
Then it was Jokinen’s turn. He didn’t miss, ripping off a shot that beat Kari Lehtonen on the stick side, just as teammate Nathan Horton had done in the opening round of the shootout.
“You don’t want to go there,” Jokinen said, referring to the extra period and shootout. “You want to win two points in regulation.”
But the Panthers will certainly take just their second win in their last seven games. The Thrashers also are struggling, losing six of nine, and their hold on second place in the Southeast Division dropped to just one point over Florida.
Slava Kozlov was the only Atlanta scorer in the shootout.
“We should have never gone to overtime,” said Thrashers captain Bobby Holik, who had the lone goal through the first two periods.
Things really picked up in the third. The teams went back and forth, scoring three goals in a span of just over six minutes.
Kovalchuk put the Thrashers ahead 2-1 with 10:51 left in regulation, pulling off a brilliant goal from behind the net to put himself four ahead of Alex Ovechkin and Jarome Iginla in the goal-scoring race.
Mark Recchi set it up, first circling behind the net, then flipping it across the crease to Kovalchuk on the other side. He didn’t have an angle to shoot, so he traced Recchi’s path and tucked the puck just inside the post before Vokoun could get back across.
Kovalchuk is expected to be named to a hometown all-star game on Friday, when the rest of the Eastern Conference team will be announced for the Jan. 27 game in Atlanta.
Florida wasn’t done, tying it 2-2 on Kamil Kreps’ goal with 7:06 left in third. The Panthers have now won two straight in Atlanta after a winless streak of 11 games.
Brett McLean whiffed trying to get off a shot, but Rostislav Olesz knocked the puck to Kreps for an even better look. Lehtonen was on his knees, trying to see through a maze of players, when Kreps got off a shot that went right between the goalie’s legs for his fourth goal of the season.
“I didn’t know where the puck was,” said Lehtonen, who made 38 saves. “Then, when I saw where it was, I was in the wrong place.”
The Panthers controlled play through much of the first 30 minutes, but the Thrashers found the net first on a goal by Holik late in the second.
When Kozlov sped into the Florida zone along the boards, defenceman Steve Montador came over to take a run at him. Just before Montador arrived, Kozlov flipped the puck onto the stick of Holik, who redirected it past Vokoun.
While Holik celebrated his seventh goal, Kozlov took offence at Montador’s rough check. They tussled briefly before the linesmen stepped in to break it up without anyone throwing a serious punch.
Montador was in the middle of things again when Florida tied it up with 13:22 left in the third.
From the top of a faceoff circle in his own zone, he ripped a long pass to Olesz just outside the Atlanta blue line. The speedy winger caught Thrashers defenceman Garnet Exelby a bit flat-footed, swooped in on the net and stuffed the puck under the pads of Lehtonen.
Notes: D Atlanta lost for only the second time in 11 overtime and shootout games this season. … D Magnus Johansson got to Atlanta in time to suit up for the Panthers, who acquired him from Chicago earlier in the day for a seventh-round pick in the 2009 entry draft. Johansson played 19 minutes.