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Associated Press
10/21/2006 10:27:09 PM


ATLANTA (AP) - The Atlanta Thrashers were determined to avoid another poor start.

No worries so far.

Marian Hossa scored two more goals, Ilya Kovalchuk finally got one in regulation and the Thrashers kept up the best start in franchise history, beating the Florida Panthers 4-2 Saturday night.

J.P. Vigier added a rare goal and Kari Lehtonen turned aside 18 shots in the Thrashers' win, their sixth in the first eight games.

Atlanta has picked up 13 of a possible 16 points, with its only regulation loss coming on a last-second goal by defending Stanley Cup champion Carolina.

Quite a contrast to last season, when the Thrashers started 4-9-1 and wound missing their first trip to the playoffs by a mere two points.

"When you're front-runners, it's a little bit easier," coach Bob Hartley said. "These points in October are worth just as much as those points in April. And we found out last year that those points in April are real tough to get. I'm not saying it's easier in October, but it's a little easier to breathe. You've got a little more to build on at this time of year."

Kovalchuk, whose lone goal coming into the night had been an overtime winner, finally got one in regulation at 1:45 of the third to put the Thrashers ahead 3-1. Last season's 52-goal scorer appeared to get another with 3 seconds remaining on an empty-netter, assisted by Hossa.

"He got two goals," Hossa said afterward, believing the goal belonged to Kovalchuk. "That's good for the team."

But Hossa wound up getting credit for his team-leading ninth goal because Florida's Olli Jokinen threw his stick at the puck in disgust as the Atlanta player broke in on the unguarded net, just before he passed off to Kovalchuk.

"The confidence is so important," Hossa said. "We are on kind of a roll."

Hossa broke a scoreless tie 3½ minutes into the second after being awarded a penalty shot. He set up the play by stealing the puck just inside the blue line and getting hooked from behind by Ruslan Salei.

With another crack at Alex Auld, Hossa drifted leisurely to his right and fired the puck past the goalie's right pad after luring him across the crease. It was the second penalty-shot score of Hossa's career.

Kovalchuk scored off a big assist from Bobby Holik, who powered past Bryan Allen along the boards and spotted Kovalchuk drifting alone in between the faceoff circles. He buried the shot past a helpless Auld.

"It's tough to come back against a team like that," said Joe Nieuwendyk, who scored Florida's second goal. "They are playing extremely well."

While Hossa and Kovalchuk are expected to score for the Thrashers, their other goal came from an unlikely source.

With the checking line on just a minute after Hossa's penalty shot, Eric Boulton picked off the puck at centre ice and bulled his way toward the net. Auld stopped the shot, but fell over backward without controlling the rebound. Vigier knocked the puck under Auld's right leg to make it 2-0.

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