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Pittsburgh Penguins vs. Atlanta Thrashers @NHLdotcom
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GAME: Pittsburgh Penguins (21-47-8-4) at Atlanta Thrashers (32-36-8-4).

TIME: Friday, 7:30 p.m. EST.

Ilya Kovalchuk is having the best season of his young career.

He'll look to continue his pursuit of the NHL goal-scoring lead when his Atlanta Thrashers host the Pittsburgh Penguins.

Kovalchuk has 39 goals, one behind Columbus' Rick Nash and Calgary's Jarome Iginla.

In just his third season, Kovalchuk has set career highs in goals, assists (46) and points (85). He is third in the league in scoring, behind Tampa Bay's Martin St. Louis (93) and Colorado's Joe Sakic (86).

Kovalchuk's teammates are trying to do their part to get Kovalchuk the Maurice "Rocket" Richard Trophy, given to the league's top goal scorer.

"We're trying to hit him, obviously," teammate Dany Heatley told the Atlanta Journal-Constitution. "He's in position, and we want to give him every opportunity."

Kovalchuk has not scored in five games, but has picked up five assists over that span for the Thrashers, who will close out their season against Tampa Bay on Sunday.

Nash's Blue Jackets still have games against Colorado and Detroit, and Iginla's Flames will finish the season against Los Angeles and Anaheim.

"We have to do what's best for our team, and players are the biggest part of our team," Thrashers coach Bob Hartley said. "Any player that I can help, that we can help to help achieve some goals, we'll certainly be right beside them, pushing them to do so. For sure, I'll put Kovy in every situation to help him achieve that goal."

Earlier this season, Kovalchuk became the fifth player in league history to score his 100th goal before his 21st birthday, which will come on April 15. Wayne Gretzky, Jimmy Carson, Brian Bellows and Dale Hawerchuk all reached that plateau in the 1980s when goals were scored at a record pace.

Not counting the strike-shortened 1994-95 season, the player that wins this season's goal-scoring title will most likely have the fewest goals since Gordie Howe earned it with 38 during the 1962-63 season, when teams played just 70 games.

The Thrashers, who have long been eliminated from playoff contention, lost 4-2 to the Toronto Maple Leafs on Monday - just their second defeat in six games (3-2-1).

Owners of the league's worst record, the Penguins lost 4-2 to the Washington Capitals on Tuesday. Dick Tarnstrom and Ric Jackman scored for Pittsburgh, which earned a season-high 19 points in March.

STANDINGS: Penguins - 54 points, 5th place, 46 PB, Atlantic Division. Thrashers - 76 points, 2nd place, 30 PB, Southeast Division.

TEAM LEADERS: Penguins - Ryan Malone, 22 goals; Tarnstrom, 36 assists and 52 points; Brooks Orpik, 125 PIM. Thrashers - Kovalchuk, 39 goals, 46 assists and 85 points; Francis Lessard, 177 PIM.

SPECIAL TEAMS (through March 31): Penguins - Power play: 18.5 percent (65 for 352), 7th in NHL. Penalty killing: 76.9 percent (280 for 364), 30th. Thrashers - Power play: 15.0 percent (60 for 401), 22nd. Penalty killing: 84.9 percent (327 for 385), 10th.

GOALTENDERS: Penguins - Sebastien Caron (8-24-5, 1 SO, 3.76 GAA); Jean-Sebastien Aubin (6-9-0, 1, 3.04). Thrashers - Pasi Nurminen (25-29-7, 3, 2.79); Kari Lehtonen (3-0-0, 1, 1.33).

SEASON SERIES: Thrashers, 2-1.

LAST MEETING: Dec. 20; Thrashers, 7-4. At Pittsburgh, Kovalchuk and Slava Kozlov each scored two goals, and Marc Savard had a goal and four assists for the Thrashers, who outshot the Penguins 32-25.

ROAD/HOME RECORDS: Penguins - 9-25-2-4 on the road; Thrashers - 18-16-4-2 at home.

Associated Press
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