Carolina Hurricanes\' Eric Staal (12) shoots the puck at Atlanta Thrashers\' Johan Hedberg, of Sweden during first period of an NHL hockey game in Raleigh, N.C., Wednesday, Jan. 2, 2008. THE ASSOCIATED PRESS/Karl B DeBlaker
RALEIGH, N.C. - The Atlanta Thrashers fought their way through a frustrating stretch to start the season. The sliding Carolina Hurricanes are trying to figure out how to do the same thing.
Marian Hossa scored a power-play goal off a feed from Ilya Kovalchuk with 31.5 seconds left in overtime to help the Thrashers beat the Hurricanes 5-4 on Wednesday night, pulling Atlanta within three points of Carolina, the Southeast Division leaders.
Kovalchuk finished with a goal and three assists for the Thrashers, who started this year with six straight losses. Vyacheslav Kozlov, Mark Recchi and Bobby Holik also scored goals to help Atlanta hold on in a wild finish.
The Thrashers blew a 3-1 lead entering the final period as well as a 4-3 lead late in the third, but still found a way to improve to 11-2 in one-goal games. And with Carolina travelling to Atlanta on Friday, the Thrashers plan to keep moving up the standings in what has been a woeful division.
"We want to keep chasing them and keep winning those games," Kovalchuk said. "They're huge games. They didn't play their best game and we're playing pretty good. We've got more chances to win."
Once in overtime, Kovalchuk - as he had all night - came up with the key plays. First he stole the puck from Glen Wesley along the boards from behind and drew a hooking penalty to give the Thrashers the man advantage. Then he skated in on the right side before sending a perfect pass to Hossa, who was cutting in on the left and easily beat Cam Ward from just outside the crease for the win.
It was another frustrating performance for the Hurricanes, who continued their December slide into 2008. Carolina started the year 11-4-3, but lost nine of 15 games last month amid numerous injuries and saw their once-comfortable division lead shrink even further.
They put together a fierce rally, outshooting the Thrashers 19-3 in the third period and 36-14 for the game. But it wasn't enough to change their sagging fortunes.
"I thought we competed for the whole 65 minutes," Carolina coach Peter Laviolette said. "There's a process in order to win a hockey game and I thought the process was correct tonight, but the results were disappointing - definitely not satisfying."
Making matters worse, the Hurricanes have little wiggle room in the division when it comes to playoff positioning midway through the season. Carolina entered the game with 43 points, the fewest of any division leader in the NHL. Atlanta - which came in tied with Florida with 39 points - stood in 13th place in the Eastern Conference.
The Thrashers had lost three of four coming in, but got off to a good start. They pushed ahead 2-1 when Kovalchuk scored a highlight-reel goal by splitting two defenders and faking his way by Dennis Seidenberg to beat Cam Ward from the left side at 12:26 of the first period.
Carolina erased the 3-1 deficit with a quick flurry, getting a score from Eric Staal off a rebound and a putaway from Andrew Ladd off a feed from Scott Walker less than 90 seconds later. Then, after Holik scored off a pass from Kovalchuk, Erik Cole forced overtime by slipping a loose rebound past Johan Hedberg at 15:29 of the third.
Carolina had a great chance to win in overtime when Walker stole a pass and got a 1-on-1 chance against Hedberg, but the netminder sprawled out on the ice and took away the shot angle. Minutes later, Hossa ended it.
"We knew they were going to come at us with a lot of offence," Atlanta coach Don Waddell said. "I thought we did a great job, especially in the first two periods. I know we didn't get a lot of shots, but we had great scoring chances."
Notes: Kovalchuk pushed his point streak to four games and has scored at least two points in 16 of his last 33 games. ... Recchi has 12 points in 12 games with Atlanta since being claimed off waivers on Dec. 8. He was a mid-season acquisition for Carolina in the 2005-06 season, helping the Hurricanes win the Stanley Cup. ... Rod Brind'Amour's assist on Ladd's goal gave him 1,099 points for his career.