ATLANTA (AP) - Ilya Kovalchuk had quite a night for the Atlanta Thrashers: He picked up a hat trick, took over the NHL's goal-scoring lead and even got a chance to taunt Pittsburgh rookie Sidney Crosby.
Kovalchuk scored his third goal into an empty net with 44 seconds left Friday, clinching a 6-4 victory over the Penguins that nearly slipped away. The Thrashers built a 5-0 lead through two periods, then gave up four straight goals in the third.
But, after Pittsburgh pulled goalie Marc-Andre Fleury, Kovalchuk lingered at center ice, took a pass from Marc Savard along the boards, and raced the other way to score his 30th goal of the season into an unguarded net.
Kovalchuk celebrated by sliding along the ice on one knee, pumping his fist.
"You are always excited when you score a hat trick," he said. "There are not too many chances in your career."
Kovalchuk had a different celebration for his second goal, which came after Crosby was sent off with his second slashing penalty of the game. As soon as Kovalchuk scored, he turned and pointed a finger toward Crosby stepping back on the ice.
"He took a stupid penalty," Kovalchuk said. "He's an 18-year-old kid and he's got to learn he can't play like this."
The Penguins were not amused by Kovalchuk's antics.
"It's a long season," coach Michel Therrien said ominously.
But the Atlanta star didn't seem concerned. Despite missing all of training camp and the first three games in a contract dispute, he surged past Philadelphia's Simon Gagne to become the league's top scorer. Gagne scored his 29th in the Flyers' 3-1 victory at Washington.
"I don't care" how the Penguins reacted, Kovalchuk said. "It's most important to win the game. We got the two points."
Crosby picked up one assist but largely had a forgettable night for the Penguins. The rookie center was held to one assist and the Thrashers scored each time he was penalized, though the first goal technically came right as the power play was ending.
Still, the super rookie was proud of the way his team rallied.
"It would have been easy to pack it in," Crosby said. "Hopefully, we can learn from this, but at the same time we have to be proud with the way we played in the third period."
The Penguins nearly got the last laugh. John LeClair, Michel Ouellet, Colby Armstrong and Mark Recchi scored for Pittsburgh in the first 15:42 of the third - the last three goals coming on rebounds given up by goalie Kari Lehtonen while Atlanta was short-handed.
The Thrashers knocked out Penguins goalie Jocelyn Thibault with three goals on their first nine shots, then held on desperately for their third win in four games.
Kovalchuk scored just 1:28 into the game off a faceoff in the Pittsburgh zone. Marc Savard got the puck to the left of Thibault, lured the goalie out of position and passed across to Kovalchuk, who split the legs of Ric Jackman with a shot into the open net at 1:28.
Slava Kozlov made it 2-0, then Scott Mellanby scored on a shot that went off the post and straddled the line before Thibault appeared to knocked the puck in with his glove while trying to cover it. The goal light never came on and the play was reviewed, but the replay clearly showed the puck crossing the line. That was it for Thibault, who lasted just 10 1/2 minutes.
The Thrashers made it 5-0 in the second period with two power-play goals against Fleury, the first by Marian Hossa. Then, with Crosby in the box, Kovalchuk took a pass from outside the circle and one-timed a blistering shot over Fleury's left shoulder to make it 5-0.
Spurred on by Kovalchuk, the crowd chanted "Crosby! Crosby! Crosby!" toward the No. 1 draft pick and one of the NHL's most touted prospects in years.
"They are two great young players who will sell the National Hockey League for years to come," Atlanta coach Bob Hartley said, "so obviously they are two great young competitors."
Notes: The Thrashers placed C Bobby Holik on the injured list before the game. He already had missed two games since breaking his foot in a New Year's Day win at Washington. ... Pittsburgh lost in regulation for the first time in six games. They had gone 3-0-2 since snapping a streak of 11 losses in 12 games. ... Armstrong scored his first career goal. ... Savard had three assists, while Hossa also totaled three points with a pair of assists. ... Kovalchuk scored four goals in a Nov. 11 game at Tampa Bay for his other hat trick this season.