Kovalchuk, in the race for the NHL lead in goals and points, was denied on his first 13 shots before he finally scored with 5.6 seconds left. By that time, the Penguins had secured a victory, 3-2 Friday night.
The young Thrashers forward took a team-record 14 shots, breaking his own mark of 10, and netted his 40th goal, tying him for the NHL lead.
``They were going out of they way trying to set up Kovalchuk,'' Pittsburgh coach Eddie Olczyk said. ``When you start doing that, players on the opposing team will play off of that. He had a bunch of shots, but they were looking for him.
``They had a lot of times when they passed up scoring opportunities.''
Kovalchuk pulled him even with Columbus' Rick Nash and Calgary's Jarome Iginla atop the goal list. He is third in the league in points.
The Thrashers, playing their final home game, made no attempt to disguise their plan.
``We had two objectives,'' Thrashers coach Bob Hartley said. ``One was to win the game and No. 2 was to try to get Kovalchuk as many goals as we possibly could.''
Kovalchuk, who was denied on six first-period shots by Jean-Sebastien Aubin, hadn't scored in five games.
``This is my first 40-goal season and I appreciate all the guys looking for me all game long,'' Kovalchuk said. ``I hadn't scored in five games. I was so close so many times.''
Aubin, who stopped 31 shots, was making his last start of the season for the Penguins. Pittsburgh will close its season Sunday at home against Washington.
Pittsburgh has the worst record in the NHL but is 9-4-3 in March and April, matching its win total for the first three months of the season.
Kelly Buchberger scored his first goal of the season for the Penguins, who were outshot 12-7 in the first period and 33-24 overall.
The Penguins took a 1-0 lead on a goal by Lasse Pirjeta with 1:12 left.
Just 1:36 into the second period, Thrashers goaltender Pasi Nurminen attempted to clear the puck but instead directed it straight to Buchberger in the left circle. Buchberger sent the puck right back past Nurminen to make it 2-0.
``Usually when I make a mistake that bad, it shows up on the scoreboard right away,'' Nurminen said.
Dany Heatley's 13th goal 9:26 into the second period cut Pittsburgh's lead to 2-1. Randy Robitaille was credited with the assist on the even-strength goal that was scored from the left circle.
Aleksey Morozov, who also assisted on Pirjeta's goal, scored into an empty net with 47 seconds remaining.
|Lasse Pirjeta (6) ASST: Aleksey Morozov (32), Josef Melichar (5)|
1 - 0 PIT
|Kelly Buchberger (1) ASST: NONE|
2 - 0 PIT
|Dany Heatley (13) ASST: Randy Robitaille (25)|
2 - 1 PIT
|EN - Aleksey Morozov (16) ASST: Brooks Orpik (9), Lasse Pirjeta (14)|
3 - 1 PIT
|Ilya Kovalchuk (40) ASST: Vyacheslav Kozlov (32), Randy Robitaille (26)|
3 - 2 PIT
|Jon Sim Too many men/ice - bench|
|Francis Lessard Charging against Dan Focht|
|Francis Lessard Roughing against Dan Focht|
|Dan Focht Roughing against Francis Lessard|
|Ryan Malone Fighting (maj) against Ivan Majesky|
|Ivan Majesky Fighting (maj) against Ryan Malone|
|Brooks Orpik Slashing against Patrik Stefan|
|Dick Tarnstrom Holding against Ilya Kovalchuk|
|Jon Sim Holding against Andy Sutton|
|Vyacheslav Kozlov Holding against Ryan Malone|
|Daniel Tjarnqvist Cross checking against Kelly Buchberger|