Thrashers rally falls short without Kovalchuk

Facing the test of playing the defending Stanley Cup champions, the Thrashers lost 3-2 to Pittsburgh at Philips Arena on Saturday.

The Thrashers fell behind by three goals and made yet another furious comeback with two third-period goals. However, they fell one goal short again. Seven of the Thrashers’ nine losses this season have been by one goal.

“We talk about thinking we can play with teams like Pittsburgh and Washington,” Thrashers coach John Anderson said. “I don’t think we fully believe it yet. We played very tentatively at the start.”

The comeback attempt was severely hindered when the Thrashers lost Ilya Kovalchuk for the final 13:08 after he fought with Pittsburgh’s Matt Cooke. Kovalchuk went to the locker room for good after getting two minutes for instigating, two minutes for instigating with a visor, five minutes for fighting and 10 minutes for misconduct.

“I’m not allowed to comment on penalties and why,” Anderson said. "Obviously I didn’t agree with them. … If you saw what happened in front of our bench, Cooke went by and slew-footed him. That’s what started it. At some point you have to say that’s enough. I don’t mind what he did.”

Kovalchuk was not available for comment following the game.

“We lose Kovalchuk and we’re down a couple goals, of course it made a difference,” Anderson said of the Thrashers comeback.

Defenseman Martin Skoula, who entered the game with just one goal, scored twice for the Penguins with first- and second-period tallies. Evgeni Malkin scored what turned out to be the game-winner at the 11:46 mark of the second period. His shot on goal deflected off Thrashers defenseman Tobias Enstrom and trickled pass goaltender Johan Hedberg.

“It hit something, and it hit the ice just before my pad and just bounced over it,” said Heberg, who finished with 31 saves. “They got some serious breaks, and that was one of them.”

Chris Thorburn scored a short-handed goal, converting a pass from Zach Bogosian with 9:40 left. Both of Thorburn’s goals this season are short-handed. The Thrashers pulled to within one on Max Afinogenov’s goal with 17.1 seconds -- with their net empty.

The loss dropped the Thrashers to 10-7-2 (22 points) and 4-5-1 at home. A crowd of 17,588 watched as the Thrashers had a five-game streak with at least a point snapped.

“We were trying to play aggressive; we were down three goals,” Thorburn said of his second shorthanded goal of the season. "[Pavel Kubina] made a great breakout pass to [Bogosian], and he’s been jumping in the play all year. Again, he did a great job. He got me the puck, made a great pass, and I just pretty much had to tap it in.”

Yet it was another late Thrashers comeback that fell short.

“We seem to be on the short end of the stick most of the time,” Thorburn said. “Our goalies are doing a great job of keeping us in it. … They are making some big saves. It could have easily been 4-0 coming in after the first [period Saturday].

The Thrashers lost defenseman Ron Hainsey for much of the game after he was hit in the eye with a puck. Hainsey played just 4:17 of the second period and returned just after Kovalchuk was lost for the remainder of the game.

Marc-Andre Fleury stopped 31 shots for Pittsburgh, including several big saves on Kovalchuk and Afinogenov.

“Overall, we matched up well against a very good team,” Hedberg said. “They played well, too. Fluery made some very good saves for them, and we hit a couple of posts. It’s a game of margins. Some nights you are going to have them with you, some nights you are not.

“We’ve got character. We believe in ourselves. We keep playing like this night in and night out, we are going to be successful a lot of times. There are some things we need to adjust. Hopefully we are going to do that.”

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