ATLANTA -- Less than a week ago, Thrashers coach Craig Ramsay said captain Andrew Ladd was "trying to take the team and drag it."
On Saturday, Ladd, a two-time Stanley Cup champion at age 25, dragged his team a little closer to the playoffs.
Ladd scored two goals – giving him nine in his last 11 games – including the game-winner 25 seconds into overtime to lift the Thrashers to a much needed 4-3 victory over the Panthers before 15,799 at Philips Arena.
Entering the night, Atlanta was 1-6-1 in its last eight and had fallen to 11th in the Eastern Conference, eight points behind Carolina for the final playoff spot. With Saturday's win and another in regulation over the Southeast Division rival Hurricanes in Raleigh on Wednesday, the Thrashers can pull within four points with 15 games to play.
If the Thrashers manage to make a late run to the playoffs, no one will deserve more credit than Ladd, a former Hurricane and Chicago Blackhawk who came to Atlanta on in a trade last summer. The former No. 4 draft pick has pushed his career-high goals total to 25 – eight more than his previous best.
Ladd has tried to lead both by example and with his words, though he might be relatively soft-spoken in public.
"I think I've been trying to do that the whole year, to be honest with you," he said of trying to take the team on his back.
The score was 1-1 through two periods -- but only because Panthers goalie Tomas Vokoun turned aside 18 shots in the second period, including the final 17. Florida failed to get a shot on net until 68 seconds remained in the period.
Ladd was asked what the mood in the room was like at second intermission.
"I just reiterated that we need to keep the pressure up," he said. "That's the key to our team. When we're on our toes and we're in the offensive zone and putting pressure on teams, we create turnovers that's what when we're at our best."
As if on cue, Ladd scored the go-ahead goal 1:08 into the third period, as Florida's penalty-killers finally gave way after killing off four minors and part of a fifth in the second period. But that lat penalty carried over into the third period -- and as Atlanta pressured the Panthers, Ladd skated out from behind the net and Byfuglien shoved Panthers defenseman Jason Garrison into Vokoun. Ladd the snuck the puck into the vacated net from along the goal line for the power-play goal.
Blake Wheeler then scored his second goal of the night and third in five games at 6:30 of the third. Byfuglien, who earned three primary assists, skated down the right side and put a tough wrister on Vokoun. The puck fell and Vokoun could not locate it – but Wheeler found it and put it in the net.
However, Atlanta almost frittered away the win. Stephen Weiss scored for Florida on a long snap shot during a power play at 7:58 with Thrashers forward Chris Thorburn in the box for his third minor penalty of the evening. David Booth hammered in a long rebound at 10:58 to bring Florida back to even.
"We took that penalty and they scored and I think we stopped playing for a little bit," said Thrashers goalie Chris Mason, who made 31 saves.
The Thrashers failed to score a first-period goal during their entire five-game homestand. Not surprisingly, then, Florida took a 1-0 lead at first intermission on a play started by forward Niclas Bergfors, traded from Atlanta to Florida at the deadline for Radek Dvorak.
Bergfors skated out from behind the net and threw the puck in front. It bounced around the crease and Sergei Samsonov swiped at it, causing it to trickle just through Mason and over the goal line at 5:46.
Wheeler scored for Atlanta just 53 seconds into the second period. Ladd shot from a steep angle after a rush down the left wing and Byfuglien dug for the puck in the crease. The puck popped out to Wheeler in the right circle and he put into an open net.
The finals few minutes of regulation were a bit frenzied. For Atlanta, Bryan Little skated past two Florida defensemen to break in alone on Vokoun, then faked around the goalie but his shot hit both posts and stayed out.
Ladd then ended it quickly in overtime. Byfuglien skated down the right side on a rush and Ladd said he knew the puck would come hard. It did and he kept stick on the ice to redirect into an empty net.
"We made an unfortunate gamble in the neutral zone in overtime," Panthers coach Peter DeBoer said.
For Atlanta, the win provided some relief and a welcome burst of offense. The Thrashers had scored just six goals in the first four games of this five-game homestand entering Saturday, but finished 2-2-1 – not great, but enough to keep their fading chances alive.
"It's nice to have a good feeling in this room after a tight game," Ladd said. "The games before we were battling, battling, battling and it was tough to come into the room with a loss every time. Hopefully we can feel good from this win, get some energy and keep going."