Kovalchuk on a tear

MIKE ZEISBERGER -- Sun Media

, Last Updated: 8:26 AM ET

Ilya Kovalchuk is enjoying hockey again.

That's bad news for the rest of the NHL.

The dynamic Atlanta Thrashers winger scored his league-leading 20th goal of the season last night, an obvious indication that he is flourishing after the coaching change earlier this season.

Under former coach Bob Hartley, Kovalchuk was discouraged from using his freelance skills in favour of a more positional game.

Since GM Don Waddell took over the coaching reigns, Kovalchuk has been reunited with sniper Marian Hossa.

"It's actually the first time I've really had fun and enjoyed the game here," Kovalchuk said yesterday. "You are not afraid to make mistakes. You don't have to be shy out there.

"Bob was a great coach but it was tough. He was more of a guy who wanted the puck dumped in and then chase it. You would get tired easier and it didn't really take advantage of our speed and skill the way we do now."

THE DOCTORS OFFICE

Forward Alexei Ponikarovsky could be back in the lineup tomorrow when the Maple Leafs host Sidney Crosby and the Pittsburgh Penguins at the Air Canada Centre.

Ponikarovsky missed his second consecutive game with a groin strain last night, an injury he suffered during the Leafs 5-1 loss to the Phoenix Coyotes Saturday.

Ponikarovsky did take part in the morning skate yesterday and was encouraged by his progress.

"It felt much better, but you don't want to do anything to have a setback," he said. "You want to be careful.

"At the time it happened I didn't think it was that serious. Right now I would say it is day to day.

Rookie Jiri Tlusty also was scratched because of an ailing shoulder. He might be available for the Penguins game as well.

OPEN PRACTICE

The Maple Leafs open practice will be held tomorrow morning at the Air Canada Centre. Tickets for the event can be purchased for $6.50 a pop at Ticketmaster. Fans should be at the rink around 10 a.m.


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