ATLANTA – Ilya Kovalchuk and the Atlanta Thrashers know better than to put too much stock in a season-opening win.
“Last year we won the first game, too,” said Kovalchuk after he scored two goals in Atlanta’s 6-3 win over the Tampa Bay Lightning on Saturday night.
Rich Peverley also scored two goals, Ondrej Pavelec stopped 36 shots and the Thrashers recovered after almost blowing a 4-0 lead.
The Lightning, also playing their opener, had two second-period goals by Martin St. Louis before cutting the Atlanta lead to 4-3 on a tip-in by Andrej Meszaros early in the third period.
Atlanta ended the comeback as Peverley and Kovalchuk each scored their second goals.
“Obviously, we were expecting a better result,” St. Louis said. “We’re not going to let this define our season. There’s no need to panic.”
Anssi Salmela and Zach Bogosian also scored for Atlanta, which finished ahead of only Tampa Bay in the Southeast Division last season.
The 22-year-old Pavelec earned the starting job in the pre-season as Kari Lehtonen continues to recover from off-season back surgery.
“He kept us in the game early on,” said Thrashers coach John Anderson of Pavelec. “I thought our defence helped him out.”
Added Pavelec: “We stepped up like a team today. We played great defensively and stayed disciplined.”
Defence was the big problem for the Thrashers last season as they ranked 29th in the league with their 3.40 goals against average. They also ranked 29th on the penalty kill.
Mike Smith, who had 22 stops for Tampa Bay, said “the bounce went their way.”
“The bottom line is, bounce or not, you have to find a way to make saves,” Smith said. “We were looking for a better start than that. It’s tough to swallow, but it’s a long season and we’ll get over it quickly.”
Atlanta’s 18-year-old Evander Kane, the fourth overall pick in the June draft, set up Peverley with a pass from the slot to the right circle, giving the Thrashers a 4-0 lead.
“He played wonderful,” said Anderson of Kane. “He played very well. He will get more ice time.”
Tampa Bay’s Victor Hedman, the second overall pick, earned his first assist on the first goal by St. Louis.
St. Louis scored again on a power play with 45 seconds remaining in the second period to cut Atlanta’s lead to 4-2.
Tampa Bay drafted the six-foot-six Hedman and acquired Mattias Ohlund, Matt Walker and Kurtis Foster in the off-season in hopes of improving its defence.
The Thrashers took a 2-0 lead in the first period on goals by Kovalchuk and Salmela. Smith deflected Kovalchuk’s shot, but Tampa Bay’s Paul Ranger’s stick hit the puck into the net.
Bogosian, the third overall pick in 2008, scored from the left circle midway through the second period. Peverley earned an assist on Bogosian’s goal before scoring for the 4-0 lead.
The game was the first season-opener for Rick Tocchet as Tampa Bay’s coach. He was named coach on Nov. 18, 2008.
NOTES: British Open champion Stewart Cink, a former Georgia Tech golfer who lives near Atlanta, received a loud ovation when introduced between periods. … Tobias Enstrom and Bryan Little each had two assists for Atlanta, which plays its next five games on the road. … Atlanta’s Chris Thornburn and Tampa Bay’s Zenon Konopka drew 5-minute fighting penalties less than a minute after the Thrashers took a 4-0 lead in the second period. Atlanta’s Eric Boulton and Tampa Bay’s Todd Fedoruk went to the box for 5 minutes after trading punches 4:52 into the third period. “It was a well-timed fight,” said Anderson.