Kovalchuk saves Thrashers from blown lead

RALEIGH – The Thrashers new line combinations are paying dividends. Coach John Anderson juggled his lines last week – redistributing the fourth-line players -- to get more “grit” in each grouping.

So far, so good.

However, in the end it was the star that won it for the Thrashers. The new lines made were clearly evident in a 5-3 victory over Carolina at the RBC Center Saturday night. With the game on the line Ilya Kovalchuk scored with 10:07 remaining to give the Thrashers the win. Kovalchuk’s 28th goal came 42 seconds after Carolina tied the game at 3-3.

“Kovy scored a huge goal for us and kind of set them back on their heels again,” Anderson said.

Tobias Enstrom and Nik Antropov assisted on the game winner. For Enstrom, the point established a franchise record for points by a defenseman at 108. The 34th assist of the season broke the single-season record he had shared with Ron Hainsey.

For Kovalchuk, it was his third goal in the past three games.

Antropov added an insurance goal with 24 seconds remaining.

The Thrashers scored a pair of second-period goals 1:13 a part en route to the win, their third in five games (3-1-1). The recent run came after the Thrashers went winless in nine games, prompting the line changes.

The Thrashers couldn’t hold a 3-1 lead after the Carolina answered with two third-period goals by Ray Whitney and Jussi Jokinen, his second of the game. Whitney scored on a 5-on-3 power play and Jokinen tallied just after the 5-on-4 advantage expired.

The Thrashers took a two-goal lead in the second period when Jim Slater scored on an assist from Bryan Little. Just over a minute later, Rich Peverley scored on an assist from Eric Boulton.

“You have to have four lines to win,” Anderson said. “You can’t just have one line that goes out there to kill time. When the lines are set up that way, everyone has to contribute. It’s working out good so far.”

The Thrashers improved to 21-19-7 (49 points) with the win against the NHL’s worst team in a battle of Southeast Division opponents. The Thrashers remain in 11th place in the Eastern Conference, but now sit just a point out of the eighth spot. They are just three points out of the sixth spot.

Little set up Slater’s fifth goal of the season with a hustle play to keep the puck in the Carolina zone. After gaining control, he sent a back-handed pass to Slater, who used a back-handed shot to beat Hurricane’s goalie Cam Ward. Slater now has five points in his last six games (four goals, one assist).

The second-period flurry continued with Boulton gained control of a loose puck in the Carolina zone and put a shot on net. It bounced right on the stick of Peverley, who knocked home his 14th goal of the season. Slava Kozlov was credited with an assist, his fourth in the past three games.

The Thrashers gained momentum in the second period when goaltender Ondrej Pavelec stopped a penalty shot by Carolina’s Eric Staal to preserve a 1-1 tie.

Staal skated in on Pavelec on a breakaway when the puck bounced over the stick of Thrashers defenseman Ron Hainsey at the blue line. Staal took a shot that Pavelec stopped, but Kozlov was called for slashing on the breakaway. Staal tried to beat Pavelec low on the penalty shot but was denied.

“He tried to shoot it five-hole and it hit my stick,” Pavelec said.

The Thrashers have not lost this season when leading after two periods (11-0-1).

The Thrashers jumped out early with Zach Bogosian’s goal just 2:29 into the game. Bogosian blasted a shot from the point that hit a Carolina player and beat a screened Ward to the glove side.

The goal was Bogosian’s ninth of the season and first since Nov. 15, a span of 29 games.

“It felt good to get it. I got a lucky bounce off the guy’s shin pad,” Bogosian said. “More importantly we won the hockey game.”

The Hurricanes answered with Jokinen’s power play goal with 1:06 left in the first period. Jokinen broke free down the center of the ice and snapped a shot past Pavelec. The Hurricanes had a man advantage after a slashing penalty to defenseman Christoph Schubert.