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Red-hot Thrashers stun Sabres in shootout

by Brian Hunter
It's a little too late for the Atlanta Thrashers to make a playoff push. That doesn't mean they can't have some fun damaging other clubs' postseason hopes.

Todd White scored the game-tying goal with 3.5 seconds left in regulation and Brett Sterling returned from the minors to convert his first-ever shootout attempt as the Thrashers rallied for a 4-3 win over the Buffalo Sabres on Saturday night, tying a season high with their fifth consecutive victory.

Kari Lehtonen and Patrick Lalime combined to stop the first seven shooters in the breakaway tiebreaker before Sterling ended the competition in the fourth round by beating Lalime with a wrist shot. He was playing only his fourth NHL game of the season and first since November.

"I was kind of surprised," said Sterling, who got the call to the Thrashers because captain Ilya Kovalchuk was out with an injury. "I haven't done great in shootouts in the American League the last two years, but (coach John Anderson) gave me an opportunity. I had to put it upstairs, and I got it right up."

Anderson, who coached Sterling with the Chicago Wolves, the Thrashers' top farm team, had no concerns about putting the newcomer into the shootout.

"I had him for a couple of years in Chicago," Anderson said. "I saw him score 55 goals and go about 60 percent on shootouts. When he gets around the net with a little bit of time, he's usually pretty deadly."

Sterling put the finishing touches on a spirited rally that began with Marty Reasoner's shorthanded goal at 13:26 of the third period and featured White's last-second swipe of a loose puck after Lalime couldn't control Ron Hainsey's blast from the high slot.

"I tried to go to the net," said White, who got his 19th of the season. "I saw it lying there and just went for it."

Vyacheslav Kozlov put Atlanta ahead in the first period, but Buffalo controlled the second and led 3-1 after 40 minutes on goals by Daniel Paille, Derek Roy and Maxim Afinogenov. They ended up with only one point to show for the effort, leaving them 10th in the Eastern Conference, two points out of a playoff spot.

"In the last minute, we basically gave it away," said Lalime, who made 29 saves. "It squeezed through. (White) came with a two-handed swat, and there was no way for me to hold it down."

Added defenseman Toni Lydman: "We have to make sure the puck stays in the corner or gets out."

The Thrashers were without Kovalchuk, who sat out with an upper-body injury sustained in Thursday's overtime win at Edmonton. Their five-game streak began with a shutout against Montreal, another team battling to make the playoffs, and continued with a convincing win over Northwest Division-leading Calgary.

"We're trying to grow as a team and set the standard for next year," Anderson said. "We want to win as many games as we can."

Kozlov's 19th of the season came on a power play with just 26 seconds left in the first. Zach Bogosian's initial shot was stopped by Lalime, but Kozlov converted the rebound.

Lehtonen, who finished with 34 saves, shut out the Sabres for more than half the game before they struck for three goals in a span of 5:05.

Roy set up the tying goal by Paille, chipping the puck into the offensive zone and backhanding a pass from the right corner that the charging Paille tipped past Lalime with 6:41 left in the second. Roy was credited with his 25th when his slapper went in off Thrashers defenseman Boris Valabik with 3:29 remaining and Afinogenov banged in Thomas Vanek's feed to complete the burst.

When Valabik took a roughing penalty with 6:54 to play in the third, the Sabres could have taken a three-goal lead on the power play. Instead, Reasoner cut the Thrashers' deficit in half just 20 seconds later, then assisted on White's goal after Lehtonen came to the bench for a sixth attacker.

Following a scoreless overtime, Lehtonen denied Roy, Tim Connolly, Drew Stafford and Vanek. Lalime stopped Bryan Little, Kozlov and Rich Peverley before Sterling scored.

"Your three best shooters go out in the shootout and don't get a goal," Sabres coach Lindy Ruff said. "That makes it tough."

Material from wire services was used in this report.

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