<
>

Kovalchuk scores team-leading 28th goal

ATLANTA (AP) -- A save on one end led to a goal on the other, and
just like that the Atlanta Thrashers stepped into their new role of
spoiler.

Rookie Ilya Kovalchuk scored with 3:06 left to give the
last-place Thrashers a 2-1 victory over the Buffalo Sabres on
Tuesday night.

It was a loss that could haunt the Sabres, who enter the NHL's
sprint finish in a pack of five teams going for the final playoff
spot in the East, separated by seven points.

Buffalo, with 54 points, is seven behind the eighth-place New
York Rangers.

"This hurts a lot," Buffalo coach Lindy Ruff said. "There's
nothing to be happy about. We didn't win the game and that's the
bottom line. You win any way you can ... and we didn't get the job
done."

It was the team-leading 28th goal for Kovalchuk, fresh off a
bronze medal for Russia at the Olympics. He took off on a 2-on-1
after goalie Milan Hnilicka stopped Rhett Warrener right at the
goal line. Kovalchuk looked at linemate Dany Heatley before ripping
a long, hard shot past Martin Biron.

"It wasn't just one save," Buffalo center Erik Rasmussen said.
"You can't just point out one thing. We played pretty well, but
probably the worst thing we did was not burying our chances. You
hate to give away points like that at this time of year."

Buffalo plays its final 24 games over the next 46 days, courtesy
of the 12-day Olympic break that ended Monday.

Of their final 24 games, the Sabres play 18 against opponents
currently over .500, six against division leaders and 12 on the
road, where the Sabres are 9-15-3-1.

The Thrashers, 15-34-7-4, have 22 games left. They won the
season series from Buffalo 3-1.

"We just need two weeks off every couple of months," joked
Atlanta coach Curt Fraser. "I thought we were solid the whole
game. I knew Buffalo was going to play a great game. They are
trying to move up in the standings and look out for their playoff
chances."

After a scoreless first period, Buffalo's Tim Connolly scored at
9:15 of the second with a wrist shot that hit the back pipe and
bounced out so quickly that the goal light never came on. A replay
was needed to confirm Connolly's 10th goal.

Oddly, as play continued after the goal, Buffalo's Richard
Smehlik was whistled for obstruction and the Sabres found
themselves short-handed despite having just scored.

Atlanta didn't score on the power play, and barely threatened on
offense except for a flurry in the middle of the period.

The Thrashers finally tied it with 0.9 left in the period when
Frantisek Kaberle's slap shot from the point trickled in behind
Biron.

Atlanta won despite being outshot 34-22.

Game notes
Buffalo's power play -- 0-for-2 -- ranks third-to-last in the
NHL, converting just over 12 percent. The Sabres have converted
just eight of 83 chances since Slava Kozlov severed his Achilles'
tendon Dec. 29. ... Atlanta activated LW Jeff Cowan (fractured
hand) from the injured list. ... Buffalo RW Maxim Afinogenov showed
off his Olympic bronze medal to teammates at practice Monday, and
teammate Rhett Warrener responded by bringing a Canadian flag onto
the ice. ... Hnilicka has faced 30 or more shots in 15 of his last
24 starts and 31 times this season.