ATLANTA – Forward Tim Stapleton had played 25 games as a Thrasher this season entering Sunday's match with Toronto and had failed to score a goal, earning himself a spot on the waiver wire a day earlier.
Midway through the second period with his team trailing by two goals, Thrashers coach Craig Ramsay elevated Stapleton, an ex-Maple Leaf, to the second-line center. The move paid off, as Stapleton tied the game with 4:36 left in regulation and Ron Hainsey won it in overtime, snapping a five-game losing streak by Atlanta with a 3-2 comeback victory at Philips Arena.
The Thrashers and Toronto (4-0-3 in its last seven) each moved to within four points of Carolina for the Eastern Conference’s eighth and final playoff spot. All three teams have 19 games remaining. Buffalo, two points behind the Hurricanes, holds two games in hand on all of them.
As Stapleton answered questions from reporters Anthony Stewart, who shares a locker next to Stapleton's, said, "from the outhouse to the penthouse."
"It's about time I scored, I guess," Stapleton said. "…The whole waiver thing, it's a business thing and I'd like to do everything I can to stay here. To score a goal or whatever it is, whatever I can do. It's good to get a goal. I don't look into the whole waiver thing. It's just something that had to be done. We'll see what happens on Monday."
Ramsay said Nik Antropov, who normally centers that line with Evander Kane and Stewart but was minus-2 after the first period, has been "courageous" for playing hurt. He said recently had a meeting with Stapleton, whom he called "a good kid," and tried to be as positive as possible.
"We were flipping them around and had the ping-pong machine out or whatever you call it – the bingo machine – and the number came up," Ramsay said of the decision to promote Stapleton.
The Thrashers started that play from a set play off a defensive zone faceoff. They won the draw and Hainsey chipped the puck up ice. Kane and Stewart used their speed to get up ice and Zach Bogosian joined the rush to create a four-man effort. Bogosian put a shot on from close range and Stapleton cashed in the rebound before Jean-Sebastien Giguere could recover.
In overtime, Hainsey beat Giguere with a wrist shot to the blocker side with 2:29 remaining from about 35 feet as Bryan Little, along the right boards, found him with plenty of time to line up the shot.
Andrew Ladd scored his 23rd goal – his sixth in six games – on a power play at 23 seconds of the third to get the comeback started.
"He's trying to take the team and drag it," Ramsay said of his captain. At the time Ladd scored, he had six of his team's last 11 goals.
The Thrashers also benefitted from good goaltending. Chris Mason, since relieving injured Ondrej Pavelec after the first period of Friday's 2-1 shootout loss to Florida, has allowed only two goals in 107:29. He stopped 22 shots to earn his first win since Dec. 11.
In the second period with Toronto poised to go up 3-0 on the power play, Mason went from post to post to make a right pad stop on Mikhail Grabovski at 7:50.
In his previous start on Feb. 19 at Edmonton, the Alberta native had a rough outing as Atlanta blew a 3-1 third period lead and lost 5-3 in regulation.
"The Edmonton game I played an OK game, I just let in a couple of bad goals," Mason said. "That game, I look back at it and I felt terrible. There's a couple of goals I let in that I definitely should've had. … I play best when I get the opportunity to play enough. I've had more opportunity to play in the last week and half than I've had in the last two months, so that's definitely something that helps. You can feel as good as you want in practice. Games are a little different, so it's nice to have the game time."
After outshooting a tired Leafs team – they did not arrive at their hotel in Atlanta until 2:45 a.m. after losing in a shootout 6-5 to Pittsburgh on Saturday night in Toronto – by 6-0 to start the game, the Thrashers allowed the Leafs to gain momentum with the game's first goal.
Mason left a rebound free from Grabovski's shot and Nikolai Kulemin outmuscled the larger Antropov to put the rebound past an office-balance Mason at 6:09. Those were Toronto’s first two shots.
A few minutes later, Atlanta made a horrible turnover to help the Leafs make it 2-0. Skating down the left wing in Toronto’s zone, Kane left a drop pass for no one and Phil Kessel took it the other way on a 3-on-2. Hainsey gave Kessel too much room and Kessel cut in from the right wing to the middle, put a shot on goal and scored on the rebound at 8:39. It was Kessel’s seventh goal in seven games and his 14th point in that span.
At 1:35 of the second period, Kane was called for goaltender interference as he skated hard towards the net – outside the crease – and Leafs goalie James Reimer dove into Kane, his head hitting Kane's knee, as he tried to break up a pass. Reimer, who stopped all 18 shots he faced, remained in the game but left with 3:56 left in the second period, replaced by Giguere, who allowed three goals on 25 shots to earn the loss.
"What hurt us was that we were sloppy on the power play in the second and we lost our momentum," said Leafs coach Ron Wilson of his team's unit that went 0-for-4 for the game. "Then in the third our tank was empty."