Kovalchuk scored the go-ahead goal midway through the third period less than a minute after Atlanta lost a two-goal lead, and the Thrashers held on to beat the Carolina Hurricanes 5-3 on Saturday night.
Jussi Jokinen and Ray Whitney had goals 70 seconds apart in the third to make it 3-3, yet just when the Hurricanes appeared to have the momentum, Kovalchuk put Atlanta ahead to stay. He caught defenseman Joni Pitkanen on heels and took a wrist shot near the left circle, and the puck cleanly beat Cam Ward to the glove side.
"It was 3-on-3 on the right, and we can't allow that guy that much room to get that shot off," Hurricanes coach Paul Maurice said. "It wasn't a bomb, but he has one of the best shots in the league, and he picks his spots."
Kovalchuk had a goal for the third consecutive game to help the Thrashers win for the second time in the past three games and move into a tie with the Rangers for eighth in the East. Zach Bogosian, Jim Slater, Rich Peverley and Nik Antropov also scored for Atlanta, and Ondrej Pavelec stopped 29 shots, including Eric Staal's penalty shot in the second period with the score tied at 1.
Staal had broken clear when Atlanta left wing Slava Kozlov was called for slashing as he tried to knock the puck away from behind. But the penalty shot wasn't even close, with Pavelec easily blocking Staal's attempt to beat him between his legs.
"It was 1-1, and if they score a goal, it could be tough," Pavelec said. "He tried to shoot it 5-hole, and it hit my stick. It was a big save."
Slater then gave the Thrashers the lead when he banked in a rebound off Ward's right leg, and Peverley made it 3-1 when he was in the right place at the right time to corral a pass from Eric Boulton. The puck slipped past Carolina's Tom Kostopoulos, and Peverley only had to redirect it into the net.
"We just didn't play good enough defense," Jokinen said. "If you want to win in this league, you have to hold teams to two goals or less."
But the Hurricanes, still the worst team in the Eastern Conference despite winning four of their previous six games, bounced back thanks to a foolish penalty by Boris Valabik. With Atlanta already on the penalty kill, Valabik was called for roughing after he shoved Staal into the net as Pavelec made a save.
That gave Carolina a 5-on-3 opportunity, and Jokinen took a pass from Staal to make it 3-2. Slightly more than a minute later, with Valabik just out of the penalty box, Whitney took a rebound in the slot and scored to tie it at 3.
"It's the new NHL, the last five years, and no lead's safe, especially a two-goal lead on the road," Slater said. "I thought we played good, we had good chances, we got to the front of the net and we had control of the game."
Jokinen also scored in the first period.
Carolina LW Drayson Bowman made his NHL debut a day after he was recalled from Albany of the AHL. He finished with one shot in about 10 minutes of ice time. ... The Thrashers play at Florida on Monday night, then return home for two games, including a return matchup with the Hurricanes on Thursday night.