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Kovalchuk's OT tally ends Penguins' bid for five

| Tuesday, Dec. 31, 2002

If there is one person, not just on the Atlanta Thrashers but in the whole NHL, who you do not want to see on a breakaway in overtime, Ilya Kovalchuk ranks right up there.

The second-largest crowd of the year at Mellon Arena (16,989) got to see why Monday night.

The second-year winger is one of the purest goal-scorers in the game, and he increased his season total to 21 to send the Penguins to a 3-2 overtime loss.

Daniel Tjarnqvist blocked Alexei Kovalev's shot in front of the Thrashers' net and sent Kovalchuk flying away. He beat Penguins goalie Jean-Sebastien Aubin through the five-hole for the game winner, his first of the year, with 19.6 seconds left in the extra session.

"They had the right guy get the puck at the right time," Penguins coach Rick Kehoe said.

The Penguins (15-14-3-5) went 0 for 7 on the power play, one of their worst performances of the year. They also failed to win five in a row for the first time this year but came back from a two-goal deficit for the point. Milan Kraft scored both goals, his second with just six minutes to play in regulation. His point streak is now at a career-best seven games (five goals, four assists), the longest streak on the Penguins.

The Penguins have not won a game yet in overtime, but they had their chances last night. They had a power play and seven shots on goal in the four minutes, 40 seconds before Kovalchuk scored, the Thrashers' only shot of overtime. They were 0-14-0 against the Penguins going into the game.

"When they got a power play and went 4-on-3, our guys did a tremendous job," said interim coach/GM Don Waddell, who took over after he fired Curt Fraser on Thursday. The Thrashers are 2-1-0 under him now. "I was looking for an opportunity to put Kovalchuk on the ice. With about 45 seconds left, we got him on the ice and that's what he's capable of doing when he gets an opportunity."

Thrashers goalie Pasi Nurminen made 35 saves including 15 in the second period. It was the most shots on goal the Penguins have had since the fourth game of the season (season-high of 38 on Oct. 16, also against Atlanta).

"We didn't come out as strong as I thought we should have against them in the first period," said Shean Donovan, who was picked up on waivers from the Thrashers last year. "In the second and third, I thought we came back and played hard. We got a point out of it, but they got their two. We play them in a couple days and hopefully we come out for 60 minutes."

No one would have blamed the Penguins if they griped about the officiating. They could have easily, and rightfully, argued both of Atlanta's first two goals. On the first, Per Svartvadet was off-side when he crossed the Penguins' blue line on a short-handed rush. He lost control of the puck when Kovalev poke-checked him at the line, but no call was made. He passed to Andy Sutton, who scored at the 4:46 mark of the first period.

The Penguins killed off two penalties after that, but the third was a charm for the Thrashers. Aubin lost his stick and Patrik Stefan subtly kicked it to the end boards, making it impossible to retrieve. It could have been a penalty, but it wasn't, and Dany Heatley gave the Thrashers a 2-0 lead at 17:39 with a shot from between the hash marks.

"I guess you could go back to that but it's all little breaks," Donovan said. "Every team gets breaks here and there and they probably haven't had too many this year. They got a couple tonight and they got their two points."

Lemieux, Straka and Hrdina had two shots in overtime, including one of Lemieux's that was point-blank. Michal Rozsival had the other shot.

"We had a couple open nets, we hit their guys, we just couldn't put the puck in the net in overtime," Kehoe said.

The Penguins left for Columbus immediately following the game, where they play tonight in a 7 p.m. game. They travel to Atlanta to complete the season series Friday.

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