Ilya Kovalchuk scored the winner in a shootout on Tuesday night to lift the last-place Atlanta Thrashers to a 5-4 victory over the struggling Maple Leafs. Kovalchuk, Tobias Enstrom, with his first NHL goal, Eric Perrin and Todd White scored in regulation for the Thrashers (2-7-0).
Mats Sundin, Hal Gill, Nik Antropov and Alex Ponikarovsky replied for Toronto (3-4-3).
Not only did the Thrashers have the NHL’s worst record heading in, they were also playing without injured starting goalie Kari Lehtonen and were only a couple games removed from firing coach Bob Hartley.
If ever there was a game for the Maple Leafs to win, this was it. But they played tentatively in front of 19,210 jittery fans at Air Canada Centre and lost for a fourth time in five games.
Ponikarovsky had tied the game with 10 seconds to play by stuffing a shot just under Johan Hedberg, but the Leafs couldn’t score in overtime.
Antropov and Marian Hossa traded goals early in the shootout. Kovalchuk made no mistake with the last shot, calmly flipping the puck over Vesa Toskala from in close.
The Leafs started the game with some jump and Sundin opened the scoring just 13 seconds into the first period. Moments after Atlanta had botched a breakout chance, Sundin came out from behind the goal and squeezed a wraparound by the pad of Hedberg.
Kovalchuk displayed his speed a little over four minutes later to help the Thrashers tie it 1-1. He drew a Maple Leafs defender into the corner on a rush before flipping the puck to Enstrom, who beat Toskala under the arm.
Toronto looked fragile as the period wore on, playing cautiously, seemingly afraid to make a mistake.
Kovalchuk capitalized with 33 seconds to play in the first period when he skated right into the middle of the offensive zone and beat Toskala with a nice wrist shot. The Maple Leafs goalie could hardly be faulted as he was screened by both Antropov and defenceman Pavel Kubina.
Gill drew the Maple Leafs even with his first goal of the season early in the second period. The lumbering defenceman intercepted the pass in the neutral zone and skated over the blue-line before wiring a shot by Hedberg at 1:12.
The Maple Leafs had a glorious chance to take the lead later in the period, but Ponikarovsky missed a wide empty net with a backhand shot. He then promptly took a high-sticking penalty on Darren Haydar. The Thrashers capitalized at 14:12 when Perrin one-timed a shot over the shoulder of a screened Toskala as Ponikarovsky’s penalty expired.
But Toronto again climbed back as Antropov followed Jason Blake on a rush and flipped a rebound over Hedberg at 16:19 on a Leafs power play. It was 3-3 heading to the final period.
Notes: Atlanta won three of the four meetings between the teams a year ago . . . Leafs defenceman Anton Stralman made his NHL debut and wore No. 36. He replaced healthy scratch Andy Wozniewski . . . Tony Salmelainen has left Toronto’s AHL team and returned to Finland. The forward isn’t expected to return and has been suspended.