League's top scorer draws plenty of attention
Early in the game Wings defenseman Niklas Kronwall kept a close eye on Kovalchuk drawing contact with him every time the Thrashers' left wing entered the offensive zone. The downside to this approach occurred in the middle of the first period when Kronwall went for the hit, Kovalchuk ducked it and he led a two-on-one break into the Wings' zone. While it didn't lead to a goal for Atlanta, it showed just how dynamic he can be.
Wings coach Mike Babcock thought dynamic was a good word to describe the Thrashers' main threat.
"I think he's a great example for young kids to watch," Babcock said, "how far his hands are out in front of his body when he handles is really dynamic. I always love the guys that every time they've got it they want to shoot it. To me that's a great thing."
Kovalchuk's presence is felt even when he isn't shooting, the constant attention from Kronwall led to a high-sticking penalty late in the first period, a power play on which Kovalchuck showed more dazzle. He cut through a crowd of Red Wings to get his first shot on net, and it wouldn't be the last time he made his presence felt. He finished with five of the Thrashers' 25 shots.
In the second period, Wings defenseman Brian Rafalski tried to take Kovalchuk wide, and fell backwards. Kovalchuk's rush to the goal set up center Eric Perrin, who gave the Thrashers a 4-0 lead. It was Kovalchuck's lone assist.
"You've got to give him as little time as possible because he can shoot from every angle and he knows where he's shooting too," Wings defenseman Andreas Lilja siad. "You try to watch his chest. You can't watch his head, because it just goes back and forth and you definitely cannot watch the puck because he's got a lot of sweet moves. You've got to watch him in the chest and try to aim for that."
And for a player not credited much for his defense, Kovalchuk made a good play in front of the net to stop a Wings forward Tomas Holmstrom, and then took the puck all the way down the ice to fire on goalie Dominik Hasek.
"He's explosive, his first couple steps are fast and he's got a good shot so you can't give him too much room or he's going to use that," Wings defenseman Brett Lebda said. "Just eliminating his time and space is the key. You don't know what he's going to do, so you have to be prepared for everything."
Later in the third, he showed off that speed on a breakaway, and had a rare miss on those opportunities clacking the puck off the post. Kovalchuk, never afraid to shoot the puck, is sixth in the league with 178 shots; 30 behind Red Wings forward Henrik Zetterberg who is second with 208.
Even late in the game that had been well decided, a missed shot frustrated the Thrashers' superstar.
"He's been our horse all year," Atlanta coach Don Waddell said. "He loves to score goals, we know that, but he's got a bigger passion to win hockey games. I thought tonight he gave us a great effort. He had a couple of chances to score, he didn't score but he gave us an effort in all areas of the game."
With all the attention paid to Kovalchuk, it was Hossa's night for the natural hat trick. With that one assist, however, Kovalchuk managed to put himself in a three-way tie for first place in scoring with 63 points along with Pittsburgh's Sidney Crosby and Tampa Bay's Vincent Lecavalier.
Kovalchuk's passion to win not only affects his numbers, but now with a record of 23-22-2, Tuesday's win against the league's best team propelled Atlanta into first place tie with Carolina in the Southeast Division.
"We've got a lot of guys who can handle the puck, and it's great," Hossa said. "We have a lot of ups and down and we just have to focus on each game."