BOSTON (AP) -When the Atlanta Thrashers traded for Keith Tkachuk and Alexei Zhitnik last month, they were in the midst of a free fall. Now they're on the brink of clinching their first playoff berth, and have both players to thank.
The Thrashers squandered a 2-0 lead, but Tkachuk bailed them out when he swatted a rebound past Boston goalie Joey MacDonald with 18.6 seconds remaining in the third.
Zhitnik assisted on the goal by shooting it toward the net to get the puck near the crease.
"Both guys were the reason we scored," Atlanta coach Bob Hartley said. "If you look at the replay, Zhitnik did a great job of battling for the puck, and (Tkachuk) just had to push it in."
Ilya Kovalchuk and Greg de Vries also scored, and Tkachuk added an assist for the Thrashers, who swept the four-game series with Boston.
The Thrashers won their second straight and improved to 41-27-11, tying the franchise record for wins and moving five points ahead of Tampa Bay in the Southeast Division with three games left. The Lightning have four left, including Saturday night against Washington.
Atlanta, which won 41 games last year, can clinch a playoff berth with a win in any of its last three games. The Thrashers would also clinch with a loss by both Toronto and the New York Islanders.
"Everybody knows the situation we're in and it's tight," Tkachuk said. "We have to work for it - you can't rely on other teams. We want to win the division title, so every game now is a must win."
The Thrashers improved to 10-4-1 since acquiring Zhitnik from Philadelphia on Feb. 24 and Tkachuk from St. Louis a day later. Before the trade, Atlanta had lost six of seven to tumble from first place in its division to sixth in the Eastern Conference.
Tkachuk and Zhitnik have been key parts of a resurgence that has Atlanta on the brink of its first playoff appearance since joining the NHL as an expansion team in 1999-2000. Tkachuk has seven goals and five assists with the Thrashers, and Zhitnik has two goals and 12 assists.
Marco Sturm and Petr Kalus scored, and MacDonald made 37 saves for Boston, which has lost seven of eight to drop out of playoff contention.
"You don't want to have to give your jersey away," Boston coach Dave Lewis said. "It's an uncomfortable feeling. I did that as a player in New Jersey years and years ago, and it's an awful feeling. We have to get better as a group and as a team."
The Thrashers outshot Boston 16-7 in the first period and took a 1-0 lead 24 seconds in when Garnet Exelby deked MacDonald and fed Kovalchuk for an easy goal.
After de Vries extended Atlanta's lead to 2-0 midway through second, Sturm cut the deficit to 2-1 with 1:30 left in the period when he deflected Zdeno Chara's slap shot into the net.
Kalus tied it at 2 with 4:57 left in the third, but Atlanta kept the puck in Boston's zone for the rest of the period before Tkachuk's winner.
"(Tkachuk) is a great leader," Sturm said. "He's showed it in the past and he was a good pickup for them - he showed why today. He's always good for big goals."
Notes: Boston was charged with four first-period penalties, while Atlanta had none. ... Kovalchuk has 199 career goals. ... Tkachuk and Zhitnik made their Atlanta debut in Boston on Feb. 26. ... Atlanta outshot Boston 40-27. ... Boston has lost six in a row to Atlanta.
|Ilya Kovalchuk (39) ASST: Garnet Exelby (7), Keith Tkachuk (28)|
1 - 0 ATL
|Greg De Vries (3) ASST: Pascal Dupuis (5)|
2 - 0 ATL
|PPG - Marco Sturm (26) ASST: Zdeno Chara (31), Patrice Bergeron (46)|
2 - 1 ATL
|Petr Kalus (2) ASST: Marc Savard (71)|
2 - 2 Tie
|Keith Tkachuk (27) ASST: Marian Hossa (55), Alexei Zhitnik (31)|
3 - 2 ATL
|Andrew Alberts Tripping|
|Andrew Ference Hi-sticking|
|Marc Savard Hooking|
|Andrew Alberts Holding|
|Eric Boulton Fighting (maj)|
|Jeremy Reich Fighting (maj)|
|Jeff Hoggan Fighting (maj)|
|Jim Slater Fighting (maj)|
|Bobby Holik Hooking|
|Zdeno Chara Holding|
|Alexei Zhitnik Interference|
|Shean Donovan Hooking|
|Garnet Exelby Holding|
|Dennis Wideman Delaying the game|