ATLANTA -- The Atlanta Thrashers were determined to avoid another poor start.
No worries so far.
Atlanta has picked up 13 of a possible 16 points, with its only regulation loss coming on a last-second goal by defending Stanley Cup champion Carolina.
Quite a contrast to last season, when the Thrashers started 4-9-1 and wound missing their first trip to the playoffs by a mere two points.
"When you're front-runners, it's a little bit easier," coach Bob Hartley said. "These points in October are worth just as much as those points in April. And we found out last year that those points in April are real tough to get. I'm not saying it's easier in October, but it's a little easier to breathe. You've got a little more to build on at this time of year."
Kovalchuk, whose lone goal coming into the night had been an overtime winner, finally got one in regulation at 1:45 of the third to put the Thrashers ahead 3-1. Last season's 52-goal scorer appeared to get another with three seconds remaining on an empty-netter, assisted by Hossa.
"He got two goals," Hossa said afterward, believing the goal belonged to Kovalchuk. "That's good for the team."
But Hossa wound up getting credit for his team-leading ninth goal because Florida's Olli Jokinen threw his stick at the puck in disgust as the Atlanta player broke in on the unguarded net, just before he passed off to Kovalchuk.
"The confidence is so important," Hossa said. "We are on kind of a roll."
Hossa broke a scoreless tie 3½ minutes into the second after being awarded a penalty shot. He set up the play by stealing the puck just inside the blue line and getting hooked from behind by Ruslan Salei.
With another crack at Alex Auld, Hossa drifted leisurely to his right and fired the puck past the goalie's right pad after luring him across the crease. It was the second penalty-shot score of Hossa's career.
Kovalchuk scored off a big assist from Bobby Holik, who powered past Bryan Allen along the boards and spotted Kovalchuk drifting alone in between the faceoff circles. He buried the shot past a helpless Auld.
"It's tough to come back against a team like that," said Joe Nieuwendyk, who scored Florida's second goal. "They are playing extremely well."
While Hossa and Kovalchuk are expected to score for the Thrashers, their other goal came from an unlikely source.
With the checking line on just a minute after Hossa's penalty shot, Eric Boulton picked off the puck at center ice and bulled his way toward the net. Auld stopped the shot, but fell over backward without controlling the rebound. Vigier knocked the puck under Auld's right leg to make it 2-0.
It was Vigier's first point of the season, much less goal.
Chris Gratton got the Panthers back in it, scoring with 1:43 left in the period after Juraj Kolnik hustled for a puck sliding wide of the net and flipped it to his teammate all alone in front of the net.
In the third, just seconds after Florida clanked one off the post, Allen fired a slap shot from the point that ricocheted perfectly off the boards behind the net to Stephen Weiss at the opposite post.
He redirected the puck to Nieuwendyk, who one-timed it past Lehtonen for his third goal of the season.
But Lehtonen, who has started every game for the Thrashers after getting hurt last season in the season opener, made all the saves that counted. It didn't hurt that Florida put a couple of shots off the post.
"He just keeps dominating for us," Hossa said.
|Kari Lehtonen and the Thrashers improve to 6-1-1 after a two-goal win at home vs. Florida. (AP)|
|Atlanta (6-1-1) «||0||2||2||4|
Save Pct.: .900
|03:36||Marian Hossa (8), Penalty Shot - Unassisted.|
|04:40||J.P. Vigier, Tip-In - Assist: Eric Boulton|
|18:17||Chris Gratton (2), Tip-In - Assists: Juraj Kolnik, Martin Gelinas|
|01:45||Ilya Kovalchuk (2), Slap Shot - Assists: Bobby Holik, Andy Sutton|
|06:45||Power Play - Joe Nieuwendyk (3), Backhand Shot - Assists: Stephen Weiss, Bryan Allen|
|19:57||Power Play - Ilya Kovalchuk (3), Empty Net - Assists: Marian Hossa, Greg de Vries|
|04:24||Roberts: Too Many Men on the Ice(bench) - 2 min.|
|07:42||Campbell: Roughing - 2 min.|
|11:27||Jokinen: Hooking - 2 min.|
|14:59||Sim: Holding - 2 min.|
|18:24||Holik: Kneeing - 2 min.|
|06:52||Boulton: Slashing - 2 min.|
|08:33||Salei: Tripping - 2 min.|
|14:22||Mezei: Interference - 2 min.|
|15:53||Kovalchuk: Tripping - 2 min.|
|02:56||Horton: Hooking - 2 min.|
|04:37||Weiss: Slashing - 2 min.|
|05:20||Mellanby: Interference - 2 min.|
|16:03||Sutton: Delay of Game - 2 min.|
|18:24||Gelinas: Boarding - 2 min.|
|SHOTS ON GOAL|
|Attendance - 16178|
|Referees - Kevin Pollock, Dean Warren|
|Linesmen - Pierre Racicot, Tony Sericolo|