NEW YORK - If this is what Ilya Kovalchuk looks like with three weeks of rust, it's bad news for the rest of the NHL.
The Thrashers' captain returned to the lineup Thursday night after missing six games with a broken bone in his right foot and picked up right where he left off, scoring his 10th goal of the season and adding two assists as Atlanta beat the New York Rangers 5-3 at MadisonSquareGarden.
Kovalchuk's power-play goal in the second period put the Thrashers ahead for good, and he capped his three-point night with an assist on Maxim Afinogenov's empty-net goal in the final seconds that sealed the victory.
"I feel pretty good," Kovalchuk said after the game with his right foot in a walking boot that he'll need to wear for three weeks as a precaution. "Our team played very well without me, but I think when we're together we're a little better."
Rich Peverley , who has surprisingly led the Thrashers in scoring all season, had a goal and two assists. The 27-year-old, claimed off waivers from the Nashville Predators midway through last season, has 8 goals and 12 assists in 15 games this season. He said he noticed a change in the team's attitude with Kovalchuk's return.
"It did feel a little different because it's one of the top offensive guys in the League and he's on our bench and he's helping us out," Peverley said. "Obviously he showed that by having a really good game tonight.
"He's dangerous. Whenever he gets the chance to score it's either a really good chance or it's in the net. It's great to have him back. Especially on the power play."
Peverley's eighth of the season came with the man advantage and gave Atlanta a 2-1 lead at 4:08 of the second period. While manning the point, Kovalchuk ripped a shot that hit traffic in front and deflected to Peverley. He shot the rebound off Rangers defenseman Dan Girardi, who was diving to block the shot, and the puck deflected into the wide-open net to make it 2-1.
Rangers star Marian Gaborik, who had a two-point night, evened the score with a power-play goal at 15:28 of the second period. But his 13th of the season was quickly matched by Kovalchuk.
With the Thrashers on the power play a little more than two minutes later, Kovalchuk took a pass from Slava Kozlov and snapped a wrister from well inside the left circle past Lundqvist's catching glove to make it 3-2, a lead Atlanta would not relinquish.
"We played one of our best games of the year," Thrashers coach John Anderson said. "We got a little sloppy in the third. We stopped getting our gaps up but other than that I thought we controlled the game."
A lot of that control came from Kovalchuk and his Russian linemates, Nik Antropov and Afinogenov. The trio combined for 2 goals, 4 assists and 10 shots on goal. What was the secret to their success?
"Our line was clicking real well. We all speak Russian and it's kind of cheating because they can't understand us," Kovalchuk joked.
Kovalchuk was flying from his first shift and his 8:27 of ice time in the first period led all skaters. He drew a penalty on Rangers defenseman Marc Staal by beating him with a crossover move that forced Staal to hook him. Kovalchuk later had a breakaway in the final minute of the first period that was thwarted by a backchecking defenseman.
He hit a post midway through the second period before ripping a wrist shot past Lundqvist at 17:41 to break a 2-2 tie. The two-time 50-goal scorer credited the Thrashers training staff for making it look as though he never missed any time.
"It's not adrenaline. I worked hard with Ray Bear, our conditioning coach," Kovalchuk said. "We were working pretty hard, so conditioning wasn't a problem."
Atlanta (8-6-1) opened the scoring 19 seconds into the game when Evander Kane and Colby Armstrong got behind the Rangers defense. Kane slid the puck to Armstrong, who slammed the pass behind Lundqvist from in close.
Artem Anisimov responded with his fourth goal of the season to tie the game at 1-1 after Gaborik made a great individual effort to get past defensemanZach Bogosian. Gaborik slid the puck off Thrashers goaltenderJohan Hedberg and right to Anisimov, who buried the rebound with Atlanta's Todd White draped all over him.
After Kovalchuk made it 3-2 in the second period, Kane doubled the lead 25 seconds later when Peverley picked off Lundqvist's wraparound along the boards and found Kane all alone in front. The rookie made no mistake in snapping the puck past a surprised Lundqvist.
Forward Brian Boyle cut the lead to 4-3 with his second of the season at 6:18 of the third period. Ryan Callahan later redirected a slap shot by Ales Kotalik that beat Hedberg but hit the post, and the Rangers (10-8-1) couldn't find the equalizer. It was the team's first game playing without injured regulars Chris Drury and Brandon Dubinsky.
"Obviously they are big players for our PKs," Callahan said of Drury and Dubinsky after the Rangers allowed two power-play goals in five tries.
Hedberg, making just his fourth start of the season, looked sharp while making 33 saves to improve to 3-1-0. Lundqvist (8-6-1) made 22 saves in his first game back after missing two with an undisclosed lower-body injury.