Ilya Kovalchuk named NHL’s 3rd Star for week ending March 1, NHL’s 1st Star for month of February

Atlanta Thrashers LW Ilya Kovalchuk continued his torrid pace Saturday night by scoring 2 goals and adding 3 assists in Atlanta’s 5-3 comback win over Carolina. Kovalchuk has amassed 17 points (10 G, 7 A) in his last 7 games, moving him to 7th in the NHL in points (71). At the midpoint of the season, it appeared very unlikely that Kovy would reach the 50-goal plateau, but now, with 21 games remaining for the Thrashers, this plateau is well within Ilya’s reach.

Thrashers surge past Hurricanes

The Atlanta Journal-Constitution

Saturday, February 28, 2009

There is no hotter player in the NHL these days than Ilya Kovalchuk, and he has made the Thrashers a suddenly dangerous team.

Kovalchuk scored an NHL-best 13 goals in February and capped the month with a two-goal, three-assist game in Saturday night’s 5-3 victory over the Carolina Hurricanes.

The victory gave the Thrashers their first winning month since 2007 and a 4-2-1 record in their past seven games. Kovalchuk has scored in nine of the past 10 games. His five points Saturday tied a career high.

“When Kovy hounds the puck, when he wants it, you can see it in his eyes, almost, that’s when you know he’s going to play a good game,” Thrashers coach John Anderson said. “The last period and a half of this game, that’s what you saw. He took over. … When you see that little spark in his eye, that’s when you know the other team had better be ready.”

The Thrashers trailed 3-1 before scoring four goals in the final 10 minutes. Rich Peverley scored two of those, including the game-winner with 1:28 left. It was an impressive stretch of hockey against a Carolina team that came into Philips Arena tied for the Eastern Conference’s final playoff spot.

“If we’re going to play like that, we’re going to win a lot of hockey games,” Kovalchuk said.

It’s too late for the Thrashers to make the playoffs but not too late for them to affect who does. The Thrashers head into March with a schedule filled with games that have a lot of meaning, at least to the other team. All but three of Atlanta’s final 19 games come against teams in playoff position or teams that headed into Saturday within a point of a playoff spot.

Only one NHL team has fewer points in the standings than the Thrashers, but the Thrashers have been playing much better than that record lately.

“I think what’s happening here is you’re seeing a little belief in the team and the system and in each other,” Anderson said. “Hopefully we can carry it on throughout the year. I know it’s maybe a little late now, but at least we’re seeing some progress.”

Saturday night’s announced crowd of 17,796 was the Thrashers’ largest since the season opener, but it had little to cheer until the final 10 minutes.

Carolina led 3-1 thanks to first-period goals by Tuomo Ruutu and Sergei Samsonov and a third-period power-play goal by Anton Babchuk.

But the Thrashers rallied. Marty Reasoner put the puck on net, and Peverley squeezed it past Cam Ward at the 10:25 mark.

“I took about four whacks at it,” Peverley said. “I don’t think he knew where it was.”

A few minutes later, Kovalchuk was so sure he had scored the equalizer he raised his stick in celebration. Ward somehow stopped the puck but couldn’t prevent a rebound, and Todd White knocked it in.

A slashing penalty on Tim Gleason created the power play for Peverley’s game-winner. Peverley carried the puck in from the left boards and lifted the puck past Ward high on the far side.

Kovalchuk added an empty-net goal with three seconds left.

Kovalchuk’s first goal came with 34 seconds left in the second period, and it was key for the Thrashers. It “gave them life,” Carolina’s Eric Staal said.

And no hockey player is living better these days than Kovalchuk.