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Finger-wagging Kovalchuk on quite a roll // АР
By PAUL NEWBERRY, AP Sports Writer
ATLANTA (AP) -- Ilya Kovalchuk never imagined that a simple point of the finger could create such a stir.
Or maybe he's just being coy.
"Hockey is a fun game," Kovalchuk said Monday. "I'm just an excited guy. I'm always excited about my goals, whether it's one or 41. That's why I'm playing hockey: to score goals and win games."
Kovalchuk has been scoring plenty of goals -- nine in the last five games, giving him a league-best 32 -- and the Thrashers have been winning plenty of games, surging into contention for the first playoff berth in franchise history.
Atlanta, which got off to a miserable start, is 10-2-3 in its last 15 games, second in the Southeast Division and seventh overall in the Eastern Conference -- one spot above where it needs to be to keep playing beyond the regular season.
"I don't care how many goals I score," Kovalchuk said. "I just want to be in the playoffs."
Along the way, the 22-year-old Russian will surely keep things interesting. His knee-sliding, fist-pumping celebrations put an exciting face on a league that had turned boring and stale before its crippling lockout. He's also becoming a marked man for breaching some of the sport's most basic codes of conduct.
Take last Friday, for instance.
Kovalchuk and the Thrashers were hosting Crosby and the Penguins, a matchup between two of the league's brightest young players.
In the first period, Kovalchuk checked Crosby from behind. The Pittsburgh teenager retaliated with a whack of the stick, drawing a slashing penalty. In the second period, Crosby went off again for slashing. Just 24 seconds into the power play, Kovalchuk scored from the top of the circle with one of his devastating slap shots.
As soon as the puck ripped the net, Kovalchuk spun around and pointed a finger at Crosby, who was stepping out of the penalty box. Afterward, Kovalchuk explained that he was trying to teach the rookie a lesson.
"He took a stupid penalty," Kovalchuk said. "He's an 18-year-old kid and he's got to learn he can't play like this."
A few days later, Kovalchuk was more conciliatory toward Crosby, the league's top draft pick and its most heralded player since Eric Lindros.
"Hockey is an emotional game," Kovalchuk said. "It's nothing personal. He's a good hockey player. It's nothing -- just excitement and emotions."
The Penguins were incensed by the gesture and nearly rallied from a 5-0 deficit. But Kovalchuk delivered another dagger with an open-net goal in the final minute, giving him a hat trick and Atlanta a 6-4 victory.
The following night in Pittsburgh, Kovalchuk bedeviled the Penguins again with two more goals, leading the Thrashers to a 4-3 win.
Don Cherry, the outspoken commentator for CBC's "Hockey Night in Canada," ripped Kovalchuk for his gesture toward Crosby.
"I've seen a lot of things in my life, but I've never seen a guy pointing to a guy in the penalty box," Cherry said. "Someone should've broken his arm, but they didn't."
While Atlanta coach Bob Hartley didn't care much for the finger-pointing, either, he seemed to understand it was Kovalchuk's way of expressing himself in a burgeoning rivalry that could define the league for the next decade or two.
"They're two great young players who will sell the National Hockey League for years to come," Hartley said.
Kovalchuk is doing his part. He was one of the most prolific scorers in the old clutch-and-grab NHL, managing 29 goals as a rookie, 38 in his sophomore season and 41 -- tied for the league lead -- in the last year before the lockout.
This season, even though he missed all of training camp and the first three games in a contract dispute, Kovalchuk is on pace to score 62 goals. He has been one of the biggest beneficiaries of the new rules and stricter officiating that were imposed after the lockout to create more scoring -- and help lure back disgruntled fans.
"You've got more space," Kovalchuk said. "They can't hook and hold you anymore. They've got to get body position on you. If you're a good skater, it's easier for you to beat them now. It opens up things more for the speed guys, the skill guys. The game is more fun. Even if it's a 3-zip or 4-zip game, it's not over yet. It's more exciting for the fans."
Kovalchuk plans to keep doing what he's doing -- even if it means offending someone from time to time.
"I have always been exciting," he said. "I don't think about it before the game, or a week before the game. No, it comes into my mind right after the goal. It's all emotion."
7 января. Илья Ковальчук: "Ягр и Кросби мне не конкуренты"
25 декабря. From Russia with love. Kovalchuk grateful
for family's presence // The Atlanta Journal-Constitution
7 января. Илья Ковальчук: "Ягр и Кросби мне не конкуренты" // "Спорт-Экспресс"
25 декабря. From Russia with love. Kovalchuk grateful for family's presence // The Atlanta Journal-Constitution