NEW YORK – A bit of bad weather was all Ilya Kovalchuk needed to make a quicker return to the Atlanta Thrashers.
Out since Oct. 24 when the Thrashers captain broke his right foot when struck by a puck, Kovalchuk came back Thursday night and led the Thrashers to a 5-3 victory over the New York Rangers.
On Wednesday, it appeared Kovalchuk would miss a seventh game. He felt pain while practising and decided to visit the doctor. Weather delayed the Thrashers’ flight to New York from 2 p.m. until 7 p.m., and when an X-ray came back clean, Kovalchuk took off with his teammates.
Great idea. Kovalchuk had a goal and two assists.
“They told me I couldn’t hurt it any worse, so I decided to go,” Kovalchuk said.
The star forward sported a boot on his right foot after the game and said he would wear it for three weeks.
“It’s part of the game: You get hurt, you’re wearing those weird shoes,” he said.
Kovalchuk and his linemates had a big night. The victory was sealed when he and former Rangers forward Nik Antropov set up Maxim Afinogenov’s empty-netter in the closing seconds.
“Our line was clicking real well,” he said. “We all speak Russian, so it’s kind of cheating because they can’t understand what we’re saying.”
Kovalchuk helped set up Rich Peverley’s power-play goal in the second period and then put Atlanta back in front after the Rangers tied it a second time.
Thrashers rookie Evander Kane, questionable because of a foot injury, chipped in with a goal and assist. Johan Hedberg stopped 33 shots while playing in his third straight for Atlanta, which won for the fourth time in six games. Colby Armstrong also scored.
Atlanta was 3-3 without Kovalchuk.
“It is pretty surprising to see a guy come back like that after being off for about three weeks,” Armstrong said. “To come back and be as smooth and as solid as he was is pretty incredible. The guy is a natural.
“He’s our leader, and he played well for us.”
New York, missing injured captain Chris Drury (concussion) and fellow forward Brandon Dubinsky (broken hand), erased a one-goal hole in the first and another in the second when the Thrashers controlled play. Penalties again cost the Rangers, who returned from a 1-2 Western Canada trip and lost for the eighth time in 11 games (3-7-1)
Artem Anisimov and Marian Gaborik erased one-goal deficits for the Rangers, and Henrik Lundqvist returned from a two-game absence (leg) to make 22 saves. Brian Boyle brought New York within 4-3 when he slammed in a rebound of Ales Kotalik’s shot 6:18 into the third.
The Rangers couldn’t tie it again despite two power plays and a 18-5 shots advantage. Kotalik ripped a drive from the blue line that was deflected before hitting the goal post with 8:47 remaining.
“We are not getting the results right now,” forward Vinny Prospal said. “The third period really showed how effective we can be playing 5-on-5 … we just can’t seem to stay out of the box.”
Atlanta dominated the second, scoring three times on 12 shots and taking advantage of both power plays. The Thrashers played for the first time since Sunday. New York had been off since losing at Calgary on Saturday when Drury and Dubinsky were injured.
After Gaborik got the Rangers into their second tie, Kovalchuk put Atlanta back in front 3-2 with 2:19 left in the second. Kovalchuk, who earlier in the period assisted on Peverley’s go-ahead, power-play goal, netted his 10th as Boyle served a tripping penalty he disputed.
Kovalchuk zipped a shot from the left circle that sailed over Lundqvist’s glove. Kane made it 4-2 just 25 seconds later with his fourth goal.
“The whole night was a big battle,” Lundqvist said. “They didn’t have that many shots, but they got pretty big scoring chances. It was tough to play.”
Gaborik lifted New York into a 2-2 tie with 4:32 remaining in the second, scoring his 13th goal in 17 games when he beat Hedberg with a shot under his left arm and over his pad. The goal was set up when Armstrong tripped Anisimov 34 seconds earlier.
Armstrong got things going just 19 seconds into the game when he took a pass in the crease from Kane and directed it past Lundqvist. That broke a Thrashers string of seven straight goals scored by defencemen.
“You can’t ask for anything better than a quick goal like that,” Armstrong said.
Anisimov tied it 3:49 later when he got to a rebound of Gaborik’s shot.
NOTES: Kovalchuk has four multigoal games this season, accounting for eight of his 10 goals. … The Rangers are 17-12-1-7 against Atlanta. … New York dropped to 14-4 in its last 18 home games, dating to last season. … New York enforcer Donald Brashear played in his 1,000th NHL game.