ATLANTA — Never underestimate the importance special teams can have in a hockey game.
And when the Atlanta Thrashers needed a spark in their 5-1 win over the Minnesota Wild at Philips Arena Thursday night, the special teams provided it.
After Ben Eager second goal of the season gave the Thrashers a 1-0 lead at 3:24 in the first, defenseman Dustin Byfuglien was sent to the penalty box for high sticking off the ensuing faceoff and put the league’s 27th-ranked penalty kill against the Wild’s No. 2 power play.
But the beleaguered penalty kill stood tall, led by Andrew Ladd and Rich Peverley, and prevented the Wild from even getting a shot off on goalie Ondrej Pavelec.
“Penalty killing is so vital,” Thrashers coach Craig Ramsay said. “The first one was excellent against a really top notch power play. I thought we did a great job and were much more aggressive. We won key faceoffs and did the little things we needed to be successful.”
In the third period, after yielding a power play goal to Minnesota’s Antti Miettinen (3) to cut the lead to 3-1, the penalty kill came to the rescue once again with defenseman Johnny Oduya in the box for tripping with 15:24 remaining.
Rookie Alex Burmistrov intercepted the puck and raced up the ice toward the Minnesota goal. He sent a pass ahead to Tobias Enstrom who dished a pass cross-crease to Freddy Modin, and the forward rifled the puck past Wild goalie Niklas Backstrom (29 saves) for a shorthanded goal — his fourth of the year — and extended the lead to 4-1 and less than 14:00 minutes left to play.
“It was huge,” Modin said of the goal. “We know how good their power play is and when they get the chance to move the puck around, they are going to. The goal felt good and I felt that it lifted us a little bit as well.”
One the few occasions Atlanta (7-6-3, 17 points) did score first, the lead rarely lasted long, but not on this night. The Thrashers extended their lead to 2-0 late in the third period when Jim Slater gathered a rebound off a Byfuglien blast from the blue line and potted a backhander past Backstrom for his second goal of the year.
“We scored our goals at the right time,” Pavelec said. “We played great hockey in the first period but the biggest thing was that we played disciplined and the guys skated hard and we all played for each other and it was a great team effort.”
Pavelec himself played a huge role in Atlanta’s third goal with a minute left in the second when he made a sprawling save to rob Minnesota of a goal and sent his team on a break the other way and led to Ladd’s sixth goal of the season and 3-0 lead after two periods.
Pavelec made 32 saves and earned his first victory of the season.
“It was special for me because I finally got the two points for our team,” a modest Pavelec said after the game. “It’s great, but tomorrow is another day and we have to focus on tomorrows practice and our game on Saturday.”
“Our goalies have been huge for us all year long,” defenseman Brent Sopel said. “He put a lot of rebounds in the corners and didn’t give any second opportunities and he made a couple of huge saves that kept the momentum in our favor and he was big tonight.”
Nik Antropov added his fourth goal of the season with 5:08 left in the third to complete the scoring.
With their next two games coming against Pittsburgh at home on Saturday and at Washington on Sunday, the Thrashers picked the right time to play what they called their best game of the season.
“Yeah, why not?” Modin said, “I thought we played solid all the way through. Pavelec played terrific and it was a great team effort and everybody came through. I thought we handled them pretty well and we played the way we wanted to play all night.”