TORONTO - If there was ever a game the Toronto Maple Leafs could turn their season around with, this was it.
But they simply couldn't make it happen.
Ilya Kovalchuk scored the winner in a shootout on Tuesday night to lift the last-place Atlanta Thrashers to a 5-4 victory over the Maple Leafs.
Toronto did well just to earn a point after Alex Ponikarovsky tied the game with 10 seconds left in regulation, but it was of little consolation to a team that is now 3-4-3 despite playing eight of the first 10 games on home ice.
"It's all about the wins right now and we didn't win today," said Leafs forward Alex Steen. "One point is not good enough for us."
Not only did the Thrashers enter the game with the NHL's worst record, they were also playing without injured starting goalie Kari Lehtonen and were only a couple games removed from the firing of coach Bob Hartley.
But Toronto played tentatively in front of 19,210 jittery fans at Air Canada Centre and was again victimized by a few defensive lapses. A neutral-zone turnover in the third period allowed Todd White to score the goal that put Atlanta ahead 4-3.
Even though the Maple Leafs managed to tie it, they were in tough in the shootout against an Atlanta team that had Slava Kozlov, Marian Hossa and Kovalchuk waiting to take a turn.
"That's the team you don't want to get in a shootout with," said Leafs coach Paul Maurice.
Tobias Enstrom, with his first NHL goal, Kovalchuk, Eric Perrin and Todd White scored in regulation for the Thrashers (2-7-0).
They are now 2-1 since GM Don Waddell took over an interim basis for Hartley. The Thrashers were just happy to get out of Toronto with a victory in the second game of a seven-game road trip. They next play at Nashville on Thursday.
"It's just nice to get a win and help ourselves get over the hump," said defenceman Ken Klee, a former Maple Leaf. "We really needed this. It wasn't pretty by any means, but we'll take this and try to build on it on this road trip."
Mats Sundin, Hal Gill, Nik Antropov and Ponikarovsky scored in regulation for Toronto, which plays in Pittsburgh on Thursday.
It would be hard to imagine where the Leafs might be without Sundin, their 36-year-old captain. He added two assists to move into a tie for first in league scoring with Detroit's Henrik Zetterberg at 17 points.
"He is just losing years every game," said Maurice. "He's fantastic. You've just got to marvel at him."
The Leafs started the game strong and Sundin opened the scoring just 13 seconds into the first period. Moments after Atlanta had botched a breakout chance, Sundin came out from behind the goal and squeezed a wraparound by the pad of Johan Hedberg.
Kovalchuk displayed his speed a little over four minutes later to help the Thrashers tie it 1-1. He drew a Maple Leafs defender into the corner on a rush before flipping the puck to Enstrom, who beat Toskala under the arm.
Toronto looked fragile as the period wore on, seemingly afraid to make a mistake. It's been a reoccurring theme this season.
"We're (only) playing great in spurts," said Leafs forward Jason Blake. "I don't know why that is. I don't know how we fix it."
Kovalchuk made it 2-1 with 33 seconds to play in the first period when he skated right into the middle of the offensive zone and beat Toskala with a nice wrist shot. The Maple Leafs goalie could hardly be faulted as he was screened by both Antropov and defenceman Pavel Kubina.
Gill drew the Maple Leafs even with his first goal of the season early in the second period. The lumbering defenceman intercepted the pass in the neutral zone and skated over the blue-line before wiring a shot by Hedberg at 1:12.
The Maple Leafs had a glorious chance to take the lead later in the period, but Ponikarovsky missed a wide empty net with a backhand shot. He then promptly took a high-sticking penalty on Darren Haydar. The Thrashers capitalized at 14:12 when Perrin one-timed a shot over the shoulder of a screened Toskala as Ponikarovsky's penalty expired.
But Toronto again climbed back as Antropov followed Blake on a rush and flipped a rebound over Hedberg at 16:19 on a Leafs power play. After exchanging goals in the third, Atlanta pulled it out in the shootout and sent Maple Leafs fans home unhappy.
Toronto plays six of its next seven games away from Air Canada Centre and is going to need to be much better if it hopes to make good on Maurice's pre-season promise that the team will make the playoffs.
"We've got to be darn good on the road now," said the Leafs coach. "... but it doesn't matter where you're successful - you've just got to be successful somewhere."
Notes: Shots were tied 36-36 ... Atlanta won three of the four meetings between the teams a year ago ... Leafs defenceman Anton Stralman made his NHL debut and wore No. 36. He replaced healthy scratch Andy Wozniewski ... Tony Salmelainen has left Toronto's AHL team and returned to Finland. The forward isn't expected to return and has been suspended.