ATLANTA – The lethal combination of defenseman Dustin Byfuglien's offense and Ondrej Pavelec's goaltending propelled the Atlanta Thrashers to a fifth straight win on Sunday, the longest current streak in the NHL.
Byfuglien scored his NHL-best fifth game-winning goal and added three assists and Pavelec stopped 40 shots in a 4-1 win at Philips Arena in the final game of 10 at home for the Thrashers in November.
Byfuglien, who scored his fourth goal in five games and has nine points during the winning streak, now has 25 points in 24 games to lead all NHL defensemen in both goals (nine) and points.
Yet he was modest about whether he has been dominating games.
"I feel comfortable," he said. "I wouldn't put myself out there as dominating, but I'm just out there playing good hockey and having fun and trying to play as a team."
But he did admit that his ratio of five game-winning goals out of nine overall was "not too shabby."
Byfuglien was doing it all on Sunday, creating turnovers, clearing pucks in his own zone – what Thrashers coach Craig Ramsay said he was most proud of in Byfuglien's game – and providing the offense. Thrashers captain Andrew Ladd, who came to Atlanta with Byfuglien after several seasons with Chicago, said he has seen it before.
"I've seen him play since he was in junior and he's always been like that, really," Ladd said of Byfuglien, who only trails his points total of last season by nine just 24 games into the season. "It's the first shot he's got at being the 'go-to' guy, whether it be the back end or up front and he's enjoying it. He takes charge. He likes to be the guy to score goals and make plays and that's what we need in here."
Ramsay, who defeated the Boston team with which he was an assistant for the previous three seasons in their first meeting this season, is running out of superlatives for Byfuglien, saying he was "brilliant" and "special."
Then he quipped, "We encourage our defensemen to jump up and be involved offensively. I guess he really took that to heart. He's up more than probably the vast majority of our forwards."
Bruins coach Claude Julien said he did not think that Byfuglien has taken teams by surprise, as he comes from the Western Conference where he had been seen more often at forward.
"No, I think he's done enough so far this year that he's brought awareness to everybody who plays him," Julien said. "I don't think that's a situation, but right now everything's going his way. Even that breakaway that he missed, the puck's in the air – he batted it out of the air and it ended up on his stick. Now, we can call it talent – you can call it whatever you want – but there's got to be a little bit of luck in there.
"When things go your way, you take advantage of it. He's definitely a great player for them and he's having a great year."
Julien was upset with his team's early turnovers and by its inability to finish off scoring chances. It didn't help that one of their leading assist men, center David Krejci, was out of the lineup with flu.
Such was Pavelec's concentration level that he didn't realize that Krejci was out of the lineup until he skated past Boston's bench during a timeout in the second period and looked for his Czech countryman, with whom he played in the Olympics last February, and didn't see him.
Boston (12-8-1), which was leapfrogged in the standings by the Thrashers (12-9-3), lost its second straight by a combined 7-1 margin and is now 1-3-1 in its last five.
The Thrashers have now defeated Washington, Detroit, the New York Islanders, Montreal and Boston (combined record 64-38-12) by an aggregate score of 19-3 during the streak. Pavelec has been in goal for all five of those games in which Atlanta has not allowed more than one goal in any of them, stopping 154 of his last 157 shots (a .981 percentage).
Byfuglien started the scoring early by skating down the right wing and around Boston's net. When he reached about the halfway point towards the blue line along the left boards, he sent a pass all the way across the ice to Anthony Stewart. Evander Kane redirected Stewart's shot past Tuukka Rask at 8:32 of the first.
For Atlanta's second goal, Byfuglien skated past Dennis Seidenberg in the neutral zone, receiving a pass from Alexander Burmistrov and entering the Bruins' end with speed. Byfuglien then let go one of his patented wrist shots for the goal at 12:22.
Exactly two minutes and 20 seconds later, Byfuglien stole the puck from Brad Marchand in the neutral zone and sent Jim Slater in for a breakaway goal.
Boston got a goal back at 12:22 of the second period when Michael Ryder found Blake Wheeler alone along the left wing and Wheeler's wrist shot broke Pavelec's scoreless streak at 139 minutes 59 seconds.
The game turned rough in the second with fighting majors going to Kane and Matt Hunwick at 5:01 and then Shawn Thornton and Eric Boulton five and a half minutes later.
Daniel Paille earned a two-minute boarding call at 18:06 for sending Burmistrov's head into the boards, which led to a scrum in which Thornton and Ben Eager went off for coincidental roughing minors. Burmistrov played only two shifts in the third period, with Ramsay saying the 19-year-old was "a little banged up."
Byfuglien earned his third assist on the ensuing power play, as Niclas Bergfors redirected Byfuglien's shot from just inside the left point at 19:47 of the second for Bergfors' second goal in his last 12 games.
Rask has been a hard-luck loser for Boston this season with only one win, yet he entered Sunday with a .935 save percentage.
"I let in four goals," he said. "I did not give us a chance to win."