– Florida Panthers
goalie Tomas Vokoun said Zach Bogosian's first-period, unscreened, un-tipped shot from the blue line that beat him hit the "perfect spot" between his pads.
That is about the only way to beat Vokoun over the last three games, as the Thrashers learned on Wednesday in a 2-1 loss at Philips Arena. The world-class netminder has been on top of his game during that stretch, allowing only goal apiece and stopping 92 of 95 shots (.968).
Vokoun stopped 37 with the help from at least one post to improve to 7-5. In the third period, he turned aside all 18 of Atlanta's shots, including four alone by left wing Evander Kane, to help the Panthers win for the fourth time in six games.
"It was kind of scrambly," Vokoun said of the third period, "but, obviously, we battled hard. Guys blocked shots and we were able to hang on and got the two points."
Vokoun said he was particularly motivated by the teams' prior meeting on Nov. 3, when the Thrashers won 4-3 despite being outshot 55-23, saying he played poorly. Wednesday's win represented Florida's first over Atlanta in the Thrashers' building since April 9, 2009.
Among the keys for Florida was only taking one minor penalty, as Atlanta ranks fifth in the League on the power play.
"You look at the stat sheet, it doesn't take a rocket scientist to figure out that the game plan is to stay out of the box and try to play 5-on-5," Florida coach Pete DeBoer said. "That's where our strength lies and, obviously, theirs lies in their power play."
The game turned irrevocably late in the second period during a stretch in which the Panthers pinned Atlanta in its own zone for at least three minutes with only one brief clearing play. The Panthers seemed destined to score as the Thrashers chased and chased while the Panthers cycled and passed and took shot after shot, outhustling Atlanta to the rebounds. Thrashers right wing Ben Eager threw the puck into the middle of his defensive zone, a play that shortly thereafter led to Dvorak's game-winner at 18:03. Assists went to Christopher Higgins and Marty Reasoner, a Thrasher for the previous two seasons.
For that miscue, Eager was benched for the entire third period along with center Jim Slater. After the game, Atlanta coach Craig Ramsay ripped into his team in his soft-spoken way for that hideous stretch of play. Such mental breakdowns are partly responsible for his team's 1-5-1 record in its last seven games, including three straight losses in regulation.
Ramsay said he told his team during second intermission that "I thought they quit for the first time and that they had to take charge – they had to show some heart and some courage and they did" in the third period.
Ramsay said that stretch was "incredibly disheartening" and "really incredible."
"I was very disappointed in our commitment and we just let it happen," he said. The Panthers "played well in that stretch, for sure, but we just let it happen. We stopped being willing to pay the price. That was the first time I have really seen that and I was really disappointed in that stretch."
Significantly, the Thrashers played the final two periods without defenseman Dustin Byfuglien, their second-leading scorer with 16 points. Byfuglien was hit by a dump-in with 5:06 left in the first period and did not return.
The Thrashers deemed it a "lower-body" injury. Ramsay described it as a bruise that swelled up too much for Byfuglien to return. Byfuglien played only eight shifts and a total of only 4:26 of ice time.
"In some ways, we felt a little sorry for ourselves when Buff was out and now we are going to try something else," Ramsay said. "He brings a lot of leadership during the game, a lot of commitment."
The effort squandered another strong effort in net by goalie Ondrej Pavelec, Vokoun's understudy on the 2010 Czech Olympic team who stopped 34 of 36 shots on Wednesday.
Trailing 1-0 at first intermission, the Panthers evened the score on a goal by Stephen Weiss
at 1:13. Two Thrashers got caught in the neutral zone – a play that Ramsay said the Thrashers had watched video on how to play the day before – after Michael Frolik passed from his defensive zone to Cory Stillman along the right wing boards. Stillman skated up ice and fed Weiss who moved in alone on Pavelec and slid the puck past the goalie.
Atlanta scored the game's first goal at 7:18 of the first period. Rookie Alexander Burmistrov won an offensive zone faceoff back to the right point where defenseman Johnny Oduya shot it around the boards. The puck came all the way back to Bogosian at the opposite point and Bogosian let loose a simple slapper along the ice that somehow leaked between Tomas Vokoun's pads.
But after that, Vokoun was unbeatable.