Atlanta posted a 3-3-0 mark without Kovalchuk, and continued their season-long run as one of the better road teams in the Eastern Conference---now an impressive 6-2-1.
But you could just sense the lift this team received last night when Kovalchuk returned to the lineup earlier than expected, and helped the Thrashers grab another road win---this time a 5-3 decision over the Rangers at Madison Square Garden.
Though he is wearing a removable cast on his foot, Kovalchuk was not held back by his coach John Anderson. Kovie logged more than eight minutes of ice-time in the first period, and finished with 22:22 worth. He seemed to skate well, and was his usual sniper self in firing six shots on goal.
And not missing a beat from how his season started before the injury, Kovalchuk recorded his second three-point game, posting a goal and two assists. The Russian superstar---who is in his walk year, and has thrived amidst the rumors that he may receive a huge offer from the KHL next season---has now notched ten goals in only nine games played this season, placing him among the league leaders despite 16 days on the shelf with the foot injury.
What he did best last night, though, was make others around him better. The enigma known as Maxim Afinogenov was absolutely flying, skating on a line with fellow Russians Nik Antropov and Kovalchuk. Afinogenov was a part of at least four odd-man rushes that I could count, and had at least three outstanding point-blank scoring chances, using his speed and feeding off the scintillating play of Kovalchuk. That Afinogenov's only goal came into the empty net had more to do with Rangers' goalie Henrik Lundqvist than anything else.
If Kovalchuk's return can spur his two Russian sidekicks to a higher level, and Rich Peverley (three points last night, team-best 8-12-20), exciting 18 year-old Evander Kane (two points last night includuing an assist where he blew past defenseman Michal Rozsival as if he were a pylon 19 seconds into the match, 4-4-8 on the season), and a talented young high-scoring defense corps led by Zach Bogosion and Tobias Enstrom can continue their strong play, these Thrashers might actually be able to stay in contention in the east.
And if they stay in contention, there is a better chance that Kovalchuk---who has stated repeatedly his fondness for the organization and city of Atlanta---will re-sign with the Thrashers either before or after free agency arrives on July 1.
There are certainly some red flags for the Thrashers to be aware of. They have not been good on home ice (2-4-0); they rely on some very young players to play very important minutes; they have two of hockey's most enigmatic talents in Afinogenov and Antropov; and they are piecing together their goaltending between the unproven Ondrej Pavelec and the useful backup Joahn Hedberg while Kari Lehtonen recovers from back surgery.
But Kovalchuk is an X factor here. Despite the injury, he is off to a start that is rivaled only by his fellow countryman Alex Ovechkin---who has 14 goals in 14 games, though hampered by an injury, as well. A 300+ goal scorer already in his underrated career, Kovalchuk now is playing for the right to earn top dollar next year.
That extra motivation makes him a frightening man to play against this season.