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Florida Panthers 2, Atlanta Thrashers 3 FINAL @NHLdotcom

ATLANTA (AP) _ Ilya Kovalchuk watched most of the third period from the bench.

When he finally got back on the ice, he sure made an impact.

Kovalchuk shook off a benching to score his NHL-leading 39th goal with 23.7 seconds remaining, giving the Atlanta Thrashers a 3-2 victory over the Florida Panthers on Friday night.

``When you make a mistake and put your team down by a goal, you want to get it back,'' Kovalchuk said.

Trailing 2-1, the Thrashers scored twice in the final two minutes to give a little life to their fading playoff hopes. The comeback also turned Kari Lehtonen's NHL debut into a winning effort.

Called up from the minors last week, the 20-year-old Finnish goalie was the second pick in the 2002 draft.

Andy Sutton tied it with 1:51 remaining, scoring his third goal in two games. He beat Roberto Luongo with a slap shot from about 35 feet with the Thrashers on their eighth power play.

Kovalchuk had a hand in that goal, too, coming out for the first time in more than 11 minutes when Atlanta got a man advantage. Sutton faked a pass toward Kovalchuk, which seemed to get all the Panthers _ Luongo included _ leaning that way.

``I'm sure they would rather have me shooting than him shooting,'' Sutton quipped.

Coach Bob Hartley sent a message to Kovalchuk, who got knocked off the puck behind his own net and allowed Florida's Mikael Samuelsson to score the go-ahead goal 5{ minutes into the third period.

Once Kovalchuk returned, he was clearly the most motivated player on the ice. He worked furiously to help bottle up Florida in its own zone. Finally, Serge Aubin passed from behind the net to Kovalchuk, who was hugging the goal line but still managed to beat Luongo from a bad angle.

``That's the talent of Ilya Kovalchuk,'' Hartley said. ``One shift in the game can make a difference.''

Hartley wasn't sure about sending Kovalchuk back in the game.

He benched his young star for a game last month after he missed a team meeting. Of course, Hartley probably remembered how Kovalchuk responded in his next outing _ two goals against the New York Rangers.

``Those things are basically a gut feeling,'' the coach said. ``It's like raising a family. You've got to do what's best for everyone.''

Luongo had a much easier outing than his previous game, when he stopped 50 shots in a 6-4 victory over the New York Islanders. But this time, facing only 30 shots, he couldn't hold on for the win.

``We had the game under control, then we take a penalty,'' Luongo said. ``Obviously, it was very frustrating.''

The Thrashers remained nine points behind the Islanders for the final playoff spot in the Eastern Conference. New York defeated Minnesota 3-1.

Florida also is nine points back, its playoff hopes in serious trouble as well.

``We don't have too much of a chance,'' Kovalchuk said. ``But we've got to take hold of what we've got and make a final push.''

Lehtonen had a pretty low-key debut, requiring only 19 saves for the win.

``I thought it would be great if they got like 20 shots,'' he said. ``That's how it went. The whole team played well in front of me.''

Samuelsson scored his second goal in as many games to put Florida ahead 2-1. He shoved Kovalchuk off the puck, circled in front of the net and surprised Lehtonen with a wraparound shot.

Kovalchuk didn't come out again until Christian Berglund went off for hooking Patrik Stefan with 2:54 remaining.

``Lazy penalty,'' coach John Torchetti said. ``I've seen it a thousand times not called and a thousand times called. I guess it was time to call it. But the bottom line is: We can't take a penalty like that at that time of the game.''

The Panthers had a couple of two-man advantages in the first period and scored on the second one. Vaclav Nedorost got alone at the side of the net and easily tipped in a pass from Stephen Weiss.

Atlanta failed to take advantage of its own two-man edge, not even getting a shot on goal in 1:17. But the Thrashers did break through with the teams at even strength late in the period.

Dany Heatley beat Luongo with a long backhander after scooping up a loose puck in front of the net.

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