"You know -- a little bit of excitement in the air. When we put a Kovy in, it bumps guys down to make the rest of our lineup stronger. (Rich) Peverley going down to arguably our third line, you saw what happened with that result. So it just makes us deeper throughout the team." -- Head coach John Anderson
Never mind that total exceeds the average of the League leader in ice time among forwards, the New York Rangers' Marian Gaborik at 22:15 per game.
"Well, I didn't plan on playing him over 20 minutes and I played him 22 and he didn't have any problem handling that," Atlanta coach John Anderson said after his team's optional skate Friday morning prior to its game with Los Angeles at Philips Arena Friday night. "One thing about Kovy is he's one of those guys, one of those rare athletes that you keep playing him and playing him. I said to him last year, 'Do you think you can play 25?' He said, 'No, I think I can play 30.'
"So that's the type of mentality you're dealing with. I don't think there will be any limitations, but certainly I'm going to watch him."
The Thrashers went 3-3 without Kovalchuk in the lineup and stand just two points behind Boston for the Eastern Conference's eighth and final playoff spot. But Atlanta holds three games in hand.
At the time Kovalchuk went down, his 9 goals ranked him first in the NHL. He was projected to miss 3-5 weeks, but instead sat out barely more than two.
The day before Kovalchuk's return was filled with a bit of drama. Immediately after practice Anderson told reporters there was a 90-percent chance that Kovalchuk would play Thursday against the Rangers. Then Kovalchuk experienced some pain and went to the doctor.
In the afternoon, Atlanta General Manager Don Waddell, in Toronto for GM meetings, told reporters there Kovalchuk would not make the trip. But a delay with the team's charter allowed Kovalchuk time to visit the doctor, get an X-ray and still make the flight.
"We did the X-ray, it was good," Kovalchuk said. The doctor "said everything's healing well and you can't hurt it anymore, so …"
He played. In the 5-3 win against the Rangers, Kovalchuk scored a trademark goal in the second period. With time, he cruised down the left wing and picked the far left corner against Rangers goalie Henrik Lundqvist, who never had a chance.
Kovalchuk later assisted on Maxim Afinogenov's empty-net goal, giving up a chance to try and beat a Rangers player in the neutral zone and score the goal himself.
After Thursday's game, he is tied for 11th in the NHL in goals, but his 10 in nine games makes him the only player in the top 12 averaging better than a goal per game.
Off the ice, Kovalchuk still is wearing a boot and has no idea when the injury will heal completely.
"It's still broken, so it's going to be a little bit of pain," he said. "You can't expect to get rid of everything."
In advance of Friday's game, he said the foot "didn’t swell at all, so hopefully everything's going to be good tonight."
His only regimen is to ice the foot for 20 minutes after the game. He did not take part in the optional skate Friday.
On Thursday, it only took him two shifts, he said, to shake off the rust. And it showed. Anderson said Kovalchuk's return had emotional and practical effects.
"You know -- a little bit of excitement in the air," Anderson said. "When we put a Kovy in, it bumps guys down to make the rest of our lineup stronger. (Rich) Peverley going down to arguably our third line, you saw what happened with that result. So it just makes us deeper throughout the team."
The result was Peverley had 1 goal and 2 assists himself, giving him a team-best 20 points in 15 games, tying last season's waiver claim for 12th in the NHL.
Friday's game kicks off a five-game homestand for Atlanta.
"We have to be better at home," said Kovalchuk, whose team is 2-4-0 at home and 6-2-1 on the road. "We have to have better starts and better results if we want to bring our fans back."