ATLANTA – In chasing a puck in the neutral zone during overtime, New York Islanders center John Tavares had fallen down, and Dustin Byfuglien knew it.
So much ice for Byfuglien is like a siren's song for the Thrashers defenseman. His team had regained possession of the puck, and so Byfuglien entered the offensive zone and called to his defense partner Tobias Enstrom, with whom he has shared so much chemistry in such a short amount of time.
Enstrom placed the pass on the tape of Byfuglien's stick and the big 260-pounder waited and waited, drifting into the slot and sizing up goalie Rick DiPietro before ripping a shot just inside of 20 feet for his fourth game-winner of the season at 1:30 of overtime, thereby giving Atlanta a 2-1 win – its second straight – and extending the Islanders' winless streak to 13 games (0-11-2).
Byfuglien, who also assisted (his 12th) on Atlanta's other goal, continues to flourish in his move from forward back to defense, as his goal was his seventh in 21 games – putting him on a pace to far exceed last season's 17 – while tying him for the League lead in game-winning goals in the process with Columbus' Rick Nash.
Byfuglien, who scored five game-winning goals last spring en route to Chicago's Stanley Cup, revels in the big moments.
"Love it – how can you not?" he said. "It's all there, it's all on you. You've got that puck ... you have to have fun with it."
Thrashers coach Craig Ramsay said Byfuglien possesses the best asset a hockey player can have: He wants to be a difference-maker.
"He puts his hand up," Ramsay said. "He also took credit for the play for their goal on the 4-on-4. He held himself accountable and told his teammates he'd get it back and he did."
For the Islanders, who led the game entering the third period and had a golden opportunity to win it with about five minutes left in regulation, the loss continued their run of futility, during which they changed coaches.
After firing Scott Gordon when the streak reached 10 straight losses, interim coach Jack Capuano lost his third straight. Among the silver linings for the Islanders was the play of DiPietro, who was making his first start in 18 days. Capuano said with his 33-save performance, DiPietro was the team's best player on Sunday.
DiPietro, who has battled debilitating knee injuries in recent seasons, entered the game with a 4.21 goals-against average and .854 save percentage. Sunday represented his first start since allowing a combined total of 13 goals on 61 shots in consecutive starts on Oct. 30 and Nov. 3. Sunday also was the first time the Islanders had allowed fewer than four goals in four games.
"He was outstanding," Capuano said of DiPietro, who made a right pad save on Evander Kane's shorthanded breakaway with four minutes left in regulation to preserve the point in the standings. "He was what I thought he was going to be. He was focused and competitive all week and he played extremely well."
DiPietro himself was not content with a moral victory and the Islanders' first point in the standings since an overtime loss on Nov. 11. Incidentally, DiPietro owns the Isles' last win, which came on Oct. 21.
"A loss is a loss," DiPietro said. "We are doing things better and the effort is there, but it's very frustrating to lose tonight's game. We are capable of doing a lot for long stretches of time but a few mistakes here and there and it costs us the game. We have a great group of guys. There aren't 20 guys in the world that I'd rather go to war with.
"Throughout this whole thing, these guys care. I hope people realize this. This is unacceptable for us. We came into this season with the belief that there would be no excuses and we are not going to make any. We want to win games, and this loss eats away at us."
As good as DiPietro was, his counterpart, Ondrej Pavelec, was better in a 28-save effort. Over the last three games, Pavelec has stopped 89 of his last 92 shots (a .967 save percentage), and had a goal-less streak of 120:26 ended on Sunday by Michael Grabner with 12.7 seconds left in the second period.
His best save came with 5:03 left in regulation with the Islanders on the power play, as Anthony Stewart went to the penalty box for delay of game after he backhanded the puck over the glass from his defensive zone. From the right circle, PA Parenteau one-timed a shot that Pavelec, diving back from his right to left, somehow gloved.
Ramsay called the save "truly incredible," praising Pavelec's composure throughout. After fainting in the season opener and suffering a concussion that kept him out for two weeks, Pavelec is on a roll. He did not register his first win until Nov. 11 but now has three. He started the day with a 2.05 goals-against average that ranked him fifth in the NHL and a .936 save percentage that ranked him fourth.
"Every time you step on the ice, you want to win and I came back from that accident and I couldn't win a game," Pavelec said. "It was nice to get the first one and now it's behind me. I'm just trying to help the team to win the game and get the most points."
Trailing 1-0 entering the third, Nik Antropov tied the game on the power play for Atlanta with his sixth goal and second in two games. Antropov, who has gotten off to a slow start because of offseason hip injury, shot from the right circle and the puck appeared to deflect off the shaft of the stick of Islanders defenseman Radek Martinek and flutter over DiPietro at 2:25 of the third period. Zenon Konopka was in the penalty box for interference, as Atlanta's 19-year-old rookie Alexander Burmistrov drew his third penalty of the game.
With 3:48 left in the first period, Islanders defenseman Mike Mottau was hit in the eye by a shot from Atlanta defenseman Zach Bogosian. Mottau left the ice and was taken to a local hospital, where he is staying overnight for treatment.