The Boston Bruins never had a chance. Kovalchuk scored three similar-looking goals, Johan Hedberg won his third straight start and the Atlanta Thrashers defeated the Bruins 5-3 Monday night. "Kovy is shooting bullets once again," Thrashers coach Bob Hartley said. "When he's going like this, he's one of the top scorers in the game."
Kovalchuk staked the Thrashers to an early 2-0 lead, restored the two-goal margin with 13:40 remaining and turned the game into a rout 3 1/2 minutes later, finishing off his second hat trick of the season with his 11th goal.
His first two goals were from just inside the blue line. Kovalchuk cocked his stick, took passes from his teammates and fired shots with such force that he went down to his right knee for extra leverage. He got the third one from a little closer in, but again took a pass and unleashed a blistering shot before Bruins goalie Tim Thomas had time to react.
"We have a lot of skills guys on the power play, and I think sometimes we try (to pass) too much," said Kovalchuk, who also had an assist. "We just have to take the puck to the net and look for the rebound."
Slava Kozlov and Marian Hossa also took part in a huge night by Atlanta's top scorers. Kozlov had a goal and three assists, while Hossa contributed a goal and two assists. Defenceman Steve McCarthy also assisted on two of the power-play goals.
The Thrashers have bounced back from losing two straight in regulation with a three-game winning streak, giving them 25 points and pulling even with Buffalo atop the Eastern Conference (though the Sabres have one more win and three fewer games).
"It's always good to look at the stats and see your team up there," Kovalchuk said.
Hedberg has been in the nets for all three wins, taking over after No. 1 goalie Kari Lehtonen had a poor outing against Carolina last week. The backup played so well in road wins over Washington and the New York Islanders that he got another start against the Bruins.
"We have two great goalies," Hartley said. "The numbers are there to prove it."
The Bruins took 13 penalties, including a diving call against Zdeno Chara when he was tripped by Atlanta's Bobby Holik. That was far too many against Atlanta's devastating power play, which went 4-of-11 while getting more than 16 minutes with a man advantage.
"We didn't have any flow," said Boston's Marc Savard, who played with the Thrashers last season. "It's just frustrating."
Thomas said two of Kovalchuk's goals came on shots that grazed the stick of Boston players.
"He does that so consistently," Thomas said. "It's tough to react when the puck is coming at your midsection. It seems like it picks up speed when it hits the stick."
Struggling to keep up with the home team, Boston picked up five penalties in the first period. The Thrashers wasted no time capitalizing on their first chances, both of them with Paul Mara in the penalty box for hooking.
Just 11 seconds after Mara's first penalty, Kozlov worked the give-and-go to perfection with Hossa, who was parked behind the net. When Mara was sent off again, the Thrashers needed all of 20 seconds to find the net. From just inside the blue line, McCarthy sent a cross-ice pass to Kovalchuk, his stick was already swinging back before his teammate let go of the puck.
The Thrashers finished the first period with a commanding 21-8 lead in shots on goal. Kovalchuk had six of them himself.
The Bruins pulled to 2-1 early in the second period, taking advantage of an interference penalty on Jon Sim. Like the Thrashers, they scored early in the power play, with Patrice Bergeron deflecting Mara's slap shot over Hedberg sprawled on the ice 20 seconds into the man advantage.
But Kovalchuk's two goals - sandwiched around Hossa scoring the only even-strength goal of the game on a breakaway after he flipped a bouncing puck around defenceman Andrew Alberts - gave the Thrashers a commanding 5-1 lead.
Bergeron and Brad Boyes scored meaningless goals for Boston in the final 1:08. Bergeron's was on the power play; Boyes knocked in a rebound of his own shot while the Bruins were short-handed.
Notes: Atlanta appeared to score in the second period on yet another power play. But it was waved off when the replay showed Hossa punching the puck in with his left glove. ... The Thrashers have won two straight over Boston this season, following up a 4-1 victory in Atlanta last month.