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Kovalchuk's 4-point night defies description

by John Manasso /
ATLANTA -- Thrashers coach John Anderson kept trying to explain Ilya Kovalchuk's two-goal, two-assist performance against the Los Angeles Kings Friday, where Kovalchuk played with a broken foot in a 7-0 win.

Anderson was at a loss and told an anecdote from practice. He saw Kovalchuk make what he called an "unbelievable" back-hand pass and turned to Kovalchuk's friend and linemate Nik Antropov and asked, "How does he do that?"

"He looks at me and goes, 'He's a superstar,'" Anderson said. "So that pretty much sums it up."

Since returning from the broken right foot that kept him out for six games, Kovalchuk has 3 goals and 4 assists in two games. By any measure, his numbers are remarkable: He has 12 goals in 10 games, meaning that one of the NHL co-leaders, the Kings' Anze Kopitar, has two more goals in twice as many games.

The win helped to push the Thrashers, attempting to make their first postseason appearance in three seasons, into eighth in the Eastern Conference with 19 points. They trail the seventh-place New York Islanders by one point and the sixth-place New York Rangers by two, but hold three games in hand on each and kicked off a five-game homestand with the astounding win over the Kings.

Kovalchuk has long made winning a priority and preferred to talk about that after the game, as opposed to any individual accomplishments.

"The most important thing is we got four points in our bank," he said of his last two games. "It doesn't matter who scores or who got the points. It's all about the win and I think we're in the right direction right now."

When asked about himself, Kovalchuk often responds with generic answers. But the sharp-tongued Russian is at his most colorful when speaking about others.

In particular, he had a lot to say Friday about his linemates, fellow Russian speakers Antropov and Maxim Afinogenov.

The trio totaled nine points and were a collective plus-9, even if they were often bottled up in their own end at times early in the game as the result of inexplicable clearing passes they made. That offensive showing followed Thursday's 5-3 win over the Rangers in which they combined for five points and were collectively plus-3.

With 16 assists, Antropov is averaging one per game and is tied for fifth in the NHL in that department. The big Kazakh – who has yet to score -- has never recorded more than 31 assists in a season and has 66 games remaining.

Quipped Kovalchuk with a wry smile: "That's why he's here-- to set me up."

And Afinogenov has found his scoring touch in Atlanta after a nightmarish final season in Buffalo. He already has matched his goals total of last season (6) and is only four off his final points total of 20 of 2008-09, as he has averaged a point per game thus far.

"Maxie seems like he's got a second life in hockey because in Buffalo he just take a beating from the coach and told stuff and they bench him," Kovalchuk said of Afinogenov who played only 48 games last season, but led the 2005-06 conference finalist Sabres in scoring with 73 points. "You can't do that to that kind of player because he's one of the hardest-working I ever see.

"He works hard off the ice. He's in the gym every day. He prepares himself. Johnny [Anderson], he trusts him, he puts him in key situations, he feels more comfortable and you get the result."

Kovalchuk noted the smiles on Afinogenov's face and thinks he has got his confidence back.

"Yeah, I think so," he said. "Every day he's smiling. That's the most important thing because in Buffalo you can't smile. If you smile, you sit on the bench."

In addition to the play of his linemates, Kovalchuk also was encouraged by the vocal crowd of 15,638 Friday at Philips Arena.

"Yeah, it's great to see that many people in the stands and they give us huge support," he said. "I think Sunday is going to be the same thing. That's how you bring your fans back in the stands, when you win the games."

It doesn't hurt to have a superstar to cheer for either.

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