Kovalchuk could return to Thrashers' lineup Thursday

Ilya Kovalchuk is indeed a fast healer.

The Thrashers' captain appears ready to return to the lineup less than three weeks after breaking a bone in his right foot. Coach John Anderson told the AJC that he is “95 percent” sure that Kovalchuk will play Thursday against the New York Rangers.

Kovalchuk went through a full team practice Tuesday. The forward skated Monday, an off-day for the team, for the first time since the injury.

“We’ll see how it feels [Wednesday] and take it from there,” Kovalchuk said. “If it’s sore, I’ll take it easy. If it’s going to be good, I’ll skate with the team again.”

Kovalchuk said he would consult with team trainers Wednesday about his status. He participated in every drill Tuesday and showed no signs that there was a problem with his foot.

“We are pretty happy with his progress,” Anderson said. “Everything is good to go. ... Unless he says he doesn’t feel right, then he’s going to play.”

The Thrashers (6-5-1) practice at Philips Arena on Wednesday before leaving for New York. They host Los Angeles on Friday, the first of a five-game homestand.

The team estimated that Kovalchuk would miss four to six weeks when they announced the extent of the injury, which he suffered when he was hit by a shot against San Jose on Oct. 24. Anderson said the estimate was a “worse-case scenario.”

Indeed. It was only 17 days later that Kovalchuk was skating with the top line alongside Nik Antropov and Max Afinogenov. He missed six full games.

Kovalchuk, who said his conditioning would not hinder his return, was not surprised to return early.

“I knew once it felt good, I was going to play,” he said. “If it’s not going to hurt then I will be back.”

At the time of the injury Slava Kozlov said: "I know one thing: Kovy is very strong, and when he's injured he comes back earlier than he's supposed to.”

Kovalchuk was tied for the NHL lead with nine goals when he was injured. He still leads the Thrashers in goals and is fifth in points. The team went 3-3 in his absence.

The Thrashers’ scoring decreased slightly without their high-scoring forward. In eight games with Kovalchuk, the Thrashers averaged 3.5 goals per game. In the six games without him, they averaged 3.2 goals per game.

“It’s tough to watch from upstairs,” Kovalchuk said. “It’s tough because you can’t help. I can see where management and [GM] Don [Waddell are coming from]. It’s tougher to sit upstairs than to play.

“I think we played well. Every game we had a chance to win. We just have to prepare for the home games because it seems like we weren’t ready right from the start. We are going to do some adjustments. We are over .500. It’s a pretty good start. We want to be better.”

Anderson said just because Kovalchuk returns, doesn’t mean his team can breathe easy. He said every player must continue to play with urgency.

Rookie forward Evander Kane missed Tuesday’s practice. He was being examined by a doctor after he was struck in the foot with a shot during Sunday’s win over St. Louis. Anderson said he didn’t think the injury was serious.

“He can play,” Anderson said of Kane, who did not miss any action Sunday. “We just want to make sure everything checks out.”

Defenseman Boris Valabik also practiced with the team for the first time since undergoing ankle surgery on Oct. 7. He suffered a high ankle sprain after falling during an early-season practice.

Anderson said Valabik has been cleared to play, but after missing five weeks will need to get his conditioning and timing back. He could be sent to the team’s AHL affiliate in Chicago for a rehab assignment. That decision will be made once Valabik is in game shape.

“We were pretty surprised how well it went,” said Valabik, who had been skating with strength and conditioning coach Ray Bear before Tuesday’s team practice. “I wasn’t supposed to stay out there the whole time, but it went so well that I did.”

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