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Thrashers keep up best start in franchise history

ATLANTA (AP) -- The Atlanta Thrashers were determined to avoid
another poor start.

No worries so far.

Marian Hossa scored two more goals, Ilya Kovalchuk finally got
one in regulation and the Thrashers kept up the best start in
franchise history, beating the Florida Panthers 4-2 Saturday night.

J.P. Vigier added a rare goal and Kari Lehtonen turned aside 18
shots in the Thrashers' win, their sixth in the first eight games.

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 3 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.

Game notes
Florida RW Todd Bertuzzi missed his second straight game
because of back spasms. ... Thrashers D Steve McCarthy took a shot
off his left arm less than 2 minutes into the game and hobbled to
the bench, but quickly returned after receiving treatment in the
tunnel. ... Atlanta played the 500th game in team history.