RALEIGH, N.C. -- Bob Hartley told his Atlanta Thrashers to treat their game against Carolina on Friday night like a Game 7. His team responded with a performance that clinched the franchise's first division title.
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Pascal Dupuis, Marian Hossa and Eric Belanger also scored goals for the Thrashers, who clinched the division with Tampa Bay's 7-2 home loss to Florida later Friday. Atlanta had earned its first playoff berth earlier this week.
"That's why we're all here," Kovalchuk said. "The regular season is good, but I personally have never played in the playoffs. I was waiting for that, and finally we're there."
Atlanta jumped to a 2-0 lead midway through the first period and never looked back in a solid all-around performance that followed its coach's "Game 7" request.
"I told them we were in that kind of situation and I think all of our guys deserve lots of credit," Hartley said. "We played a solid first period. We got the lead and then we built on it. We played simple. We played a very effective game."
It was clearly an upgrade over Wednesday night's frustrating 3-2 loss to Washington, which was at the bottom of the division.
While Kovalchuk and Dupuis got the Thrashers ahead early, Hedberg was steady the entire way. He finished with 32 saves, including holding off a pair of long 5-on-3 power plays for Carolina.
"We wanted to win the division and put ourselves to have home advantage in the first round," Hedberg said. "We had a good chance in Washington to almost put it away but we fumbled that one away. Tonight we had a lot of determination. We wanted to come out with a better effort."
It all came at the expense of a team that won't get the chance to defend its Stanley Cup title. The Hurricanes have lost five of six games and were eliminated from the playoff race earlier this week, making them just the third defending Cup champion to miss the postseason.
Anson Carter scored his first goal with Carolina, but the Hurricanes went 1-for-7 on the power play to continue their season-long struggles with the man advantage.
"When things are going well, things are bouncing your way and in," said Eric Staal, who assisted on Carter's score. "When things aren't, it tends to drag and be more difficult. They just don't seem to be hitting the back of the net as easily as they were at other times. It's been frustrating for sure."
Kovalchuk got the first goal on a quick transition score, which began when Keith Tkachuk stopped a pass from Dennis Seidenberg along the boards in Carolina's offensive zone. Tkachuk sent the puck ahead to Kovalchuk, who zipped a shot past Cam Ward from the right side barely 3 minutes into the game.
Dupuis gave Atlanta all the insurance it would need 5 minutes later, cutting to the crease to take a centering pass from Brad Larsen from behind the net. Ward managed to stop the first shot, but Dupuis got his own rebound and buried the short putaway for the 2-0 lead.
The Thrashers pushed it to 3-0 on Hossa's third-period score, then iced it with a score from Belanger -- who was traded from Carolina to Nashville and was immediately dealt to Atlanta in February.
Meanwhile, the Hurricanes had trouble taking advantage of their scoring chances. That included failing to convert on a two-man advantage of 1 minute, 41 seconds early in the second period, with Hedberg stopping an in-close shot from Staal to turn away the Hurricanes' best chance.
Carolina also came up empty on a 2-minute, two-man advantage late in the third period.
The Tkachuk-to-Kovalchuk first-period score extended each player's point streak to four games. ... Atlanta winger Jonathan Sim returned to the lineup after missing five games with a facial injury. ... Both teams close the regular season with division matchups Saturday. Atlanta hosts Tampa Bay, while Carolina hosts Florida.