-- With seven games remaining in their regular season, the Thrashers' mathematical elimination from postseason contention seems to be just a matter of time.
And so when they defeated Ottawa 5-4 in a shootout on Sunday before 16,392 at Philips Arena, Atlanta coach Craig Ramsay's initial postgame remarks were not celebratory, but more about how the team blew a pair of two-goal leads. Captain Andrew Ladd's fourth-round goal -- the only score in the shootout -- and goalie Chris Mason keeping Ottawa off the board rescued them from defeat.
Two of Ottawa's goals in regulation -- its first and last, both by Marek Svatos -- came with Thrashers defensemen in too close to the goalie. Ramsay cited those plays both as instances of poor positioning but also as a failure to win battles.
Svatos' second goal of the game with 5:08 left in regulation sent the game into overtime. He deflected a Filip Kuba
slap shot from just above the left circle after sustained pressure by the Senators in Atlanta's end, as Svatos and Atlanta defenseman Ron Hainsey battled for position near the goal. Svatos, twice waived this season, doubled his goal output on Sunday to four this season.
Svatos also scored unassisted at 5:51 of the first period, skating along the goal line towards the net, he threw the puck at the front of the net and it caromed in off the left ankle of Thrashers defenseman Dustin Byfuglien.
"I've never seen so many goals go in that close to the net on a consistent basis," Ramsay said. "Our defense keeps getting into the goal crease to help out, but they're getting in the way of the goalie. It's just not a good thing. We must be better and more aggressive around the net and attack those plays before they happen.
"It's not good enough down around the net. That's a battle thing."
The Thrashers have blown numerous two-goal leads down the stretch -- often coming back, but not always, to win in overtime or in a shootout. It's something that has hurt them in what has taken on the inevitability of a 10th time without qualifying for the postseason in their 11-season history.
The win improved the Thrashers to 6-3-1 in their last 10 -- which, while good, has not been nearly enough to keep them from falling out of the Eastern Conference playoff race. They sit 11th in the East, nine points behind Buffalo for the conference's final playoff berth.
Among the bright spots for the Thrashers down the stretch has been the play of right wing Blake Wheeler, who joined the team along with defenseman Mark Stuart from Boston last month in a trade. Wheeler scored his fifth goal in 16 games with Atlanta to put the Thrashers up 1-0 at 4:02 of the first period. Standing near the right faceoff dot, Wheeler deflected Zach Bogosian's point shot, bouncing it along the ice past Senators goalie Craig Anderson
. Wheeler also earned his eighth assist with Atlanta later in the day.
Ramsay, who was an assistant on the Bruins for the last three seasons until taking over as Atlanta's head coach, said Wheeler had a head start on his teammates in playing the coach's preferred up-tempo, attacking style. Wheeler said he has had chemistry right from the start while playing on Atlanta's top line with Ladd and Bryan Little.
"That helps a lot and I'm getting the opportunity to play in all different situations so that gives you confidence right off the bat, and it frees you up to let some of your abilities come out," Wheeler said.
Svatos scored less than two minutes after Wheeler to tie the game at 1-1 going into the first intermission.
The Thrashers then scored twice within 19 seconds in the second period to take a 3-1 lead. Little put Atlanta ahead 2-1 after Wheeler picked off a clearing pass and sent the puck over to Little, as Ottawa was caught outmanned deep in its zone. With Erik Karlsson
draped all over his back, Little shot the puck around Anderson for his 17th goal at 10:15.
Shortly after the ensuing faceoff, Byfuglien ripped a hard shot on net from the right point that Anderson kicked to the left boards, but before he could get all the way across Ben Maxwell scored from along the wall for his first NHL goal.
made it 3-2 before the second intermission with his sixth goal at 13:37, as Ottawa defenseman Patrick Wiercioch
earned his first NHL point, an assist on the goal, in his fourth career game.
Early in the third, Atlanta re-established a second two-goal lead, as Stuart's long shot from the left side that deflected off Jason Spezza
at 2:08 of the third period put Atlanta up 4-2. It was the defenseman's first goal as a Thrasher and second of the season.
Ottawa began its comeback about five minutes later. At 7:12, Ottawa's Erik Condra
converted a rebound of Spezza's shot to finish off a 2-on-2 after Spezza made a power move around Hainsey to put a tough shot on Mason. Then Svatos tied the game with 5:08 left.
The game was setting up as yet another victory for Anderson, who entered the day 8-4 with a 1.84 goals-against average and .945 save percentage since arriving in a trade from Colorado. He made 43 saves on Sunday, attempting to follow up on a 3-1 victory over Atlanta here on March 3 in which he stopped 42 of 43 shots.
"Anderson played well today, but we did a bad job supporting him," said Ottawa coach Cory Clouston, adding his team turned the puck over too many times.
In the shootout, each team's first three shooters failed to score, then Ladd made a quick move in close, switching from backhand to forehand to score in the fourth round and Mason stopped Ryan Shannon to win it.
Mason's best save came with the game on the line (Atlanta shot first) in the third round and a chance for Svatos to play the hero. The shooter held on to the puck down low, but Mason refused to yield his ground and got a piece of the puck with his arm to keep it out of the goal.
Mason earned his third straight start since Ondrej Pavelec was pulled after the first period in an 8-2 loss at Buffalo on March 19. A win could have brought the Thrashers to within two points of a playoff spot at that point. Ramsay praised Mason's "professionalism" after the game.
"When I'm at my best in shootouts is when I'm patient and I'm standing up and I can wait ‘til they make a move until I move," said Mason, who won for the second time in his last three, the only loss coming a close-fought 3-1 loss to League-leading Vancouver on Friday.