ATLANTA -- The start was the same as last season for the Atlanta Thrashers, but it’s the follow-up that they want to change if they are to make the playoffs in the Eastern Conference.
The retooled Thrashers won their season opener for the second straight season with a monster offensive effort in a 6-3 win Saturday over the Tampa Bay Lightning before 18,545 at Philips Arena, but team captain Ilya Kovalchuk, who had two goals and an assist, had history on his mind.
Atlanta beat Washington, the eventual Southeast Division champion, 7-4 in the opener last season, when the Thrashers finished 27th overall.
"You know last year we won the first game, too," Kovalchuk said. "So we have a big challenge in front of us. We’ve got five or six games on the road and it’s a huge road trip for us and we need to get at least 50 percent of the points. So, it’s like we said, we feel very good about ourselves, but it’s just a start and we’re going to improve every game."
In the offseason, Atlanta added defenseman Pavel Kubina (one assist and plus-1 on Saturday), center Nik Antropov, who centers Kovalchuk’s line, winger Maxim Afinogenov (one assist) and defenseman Christoph Schubert.
They also have highly touted rookie Evander Kane, the fourth pick in this summer’s draft, who earned his first career point, an assist, on Saturday. The same was true for Lightning defenseman Victor Hedman (one assist), the second pick in the draft. The big Swede was minus-2 in a team-high 26:27.
Thrashers coach John Anderson said the game reinforced to him the notion that his team can score. Last year Atlanta scored 257 goals – ninth-best in the NHL – but it yielded 280, the second-worst in the League.
"We can score goals," Anderson said. "It’s the same as last year. We haven’t lost that scoring ability, which I like."
The Thrashers jumped out to a 4-0 lead, as Tampa Bay did not wake up from its slumber until Martin St. Louis got them on the board with 5:59 left in the second period.
"I think we let them play a little too much," said Lightning center Vincent Lecavalier, who had one assist. "We let them have too many good opportunities to score. But, yeah, when you’re down 4-0 it’s tough to get back.
"We did get back. But they scored on the power play so that kind of killed us. I guess that’s part of it. It’s one game and we have to work on some defensive stuff and play our next game."
The biggest accomplishment for Tampa Bay, the League’s second worst team last season, was the rally. They made it 4-3 just 2 minutes, 11 seconds into the third period after Lecavalier won an offensive zone faceoff back to Matt Walker, who passed to Andrej Meszaros for a slapshot past Thrashers’ goalie Ondrej Pavelec.
But Rich Peverley, who like Kovalchuk had two goals and an assist, got a power-play goal with Paul Ranger in the penalty box for hooking to put it away at the 11:52 mark. Kovalchuk added another goal less than two minutes later.
Prior to Peverley’s goal, the Thrashers killed a Lightning power play after Anssi Salmela was called for roughing when he jousted with James Wright in front of the Atlanta net after the whistle.
"We had to kill a penalty late in the game there, which was very pivotal for our win, and I think our goaltending and our penalty kill responded," Anderson said.
Kovalchuk, Anderson and Lecavalier, from the opposing side, all pointed to the play of Pavelec as integral in the game.
Pavelec, 22, is the Thrashers’ No. 1 right now with Kari Lehtonen recovering from offseason back surgery. The rookie made 36 saves while Mike Smith stopped 22 of 28, with Atlanta netting two power-play goals.
"It’s our first game of many and I think we created great momentum for all year and we feel real confident about ourselves and especially our goaltending because he was unbelievable today and he deserves to be No. 1 right now," Kovalchuk said.
In their 10-year history, the Thrashers have not exactly been the most buttoned-down defensive team in the League, so Pavelec might have to get used to some wild games like Saturday’s.
"It’s the NHL," Pavelec said. "Everybody’s great. Everybody’s got great players on their team. I think it’s going to be like that every game."
One positive sign for Atlanta was that Pavelec was able to battle through the game mentally, even if he didn’t always look pretty. During the preseason, he lost an ugly game to Nashville that he found hard to shake.
"We played the preseason against Nashville and it was still in my head – 4-3 and they scored three goals in the third period -- but I tried to focus on my play and continue the game," he said.
Anderson said he was "very pleased" with Pavelec.
"He kept us in early on," he said. "In tight on shots, he didn’t give up. He looked a little awkward but he was still battling away."
The Lightning, with coach Rick Tocchet in his first full season behind the bench, are hoping for better with the addition of Alex Tanguay, Hedman and improvement from Steven Stamkos, the first pick in 2008 who is still only 19 now in his second season.
"We showed a lot of character," Lecavalier said. "At the same time, that’s not good enough. We’re looking for wins. I think their goalie made some really big saves. We had 40 shots on net, but it was right there and we just couldn’t get it."
-- John Manasso, NHL.com Correspondent