-- With so much on the line, the Atlanta Thrashers
had a difficult time explaining their lackluster performance in which they failed to capitalize again to move up in the standings in the race for the Eastern Conference's eighth and final playoff spot.
Down by a goal after one period, the Carolina Hurricanes
rallied for four straight goals and goalie Cam Ward
, making his first appearance since Feb. 3 after being out with a back injury, slammed the door to deal the Thrashers' playoff hopes a huge setback in a 4-1 Canes' victory before 13,440 at Philips Arena.
With eighth-place Boston losing to Buffalo 3-2, the Thrashers, who have six games left, could have moved into a tie with a victory. But as they did last Thursday when the Bruins also lost in regulation and Atlanta lost 2-1 in overtime to Toronto, the Thrashers blew their chance.
"I can't explain how I feel right now," said Thrashers coach John Anderson, who questioned his team's effort after the Toronto game that led to a team meeting at last Friday's practice. "Very disappointed, but I still believe in ourselves. We have to pick ourselves up, we have a game tomorrow [in Toronto]. We can re-instate ourselves [in the race] right away."
Thrashers goalie Johan Hedberg talked about the need to play well enough "to deserve to be in the playoffs" and called the loss "extremely frustrating."
"We've got to focus on our own game," he said. "We've got to take care of our own business and that's all we can do."
Carolina coach Paul Maurice, whose team has been among the best in the League despite Ward's absence, going 12-4-2 during that stretch, said the Hurricanes' 4-0 loss to Atlanta in Raleigh on Saturday was "painful" and that he thought it was a reason why his team played so hard, controlling much of the play.
The Thrashers did not record their second shot on goal until 14:06 of the first period, but it came in the form of Nik Antropov's 23rd goal. Bryan Little skated as if he were going behind the net, but first passed in front to Antropov who tapped in the power play goal for a 1-0 lead.
Maurice said that having only four shots to face in the first period was not an ideal way for Ward, the 2006 Conn Smythe Trophy winner, to get into the flow of the game.
Nonetheless, Ward hardly seemed affected.
"In the first period we came out and played a really strong period and we deserved to have a better score after that period but they capitalized on their power play," Ward said. "In the second, I had a bit more work to do and as the game progressed I felt more, more and more comfortable. From the time I last played until now, you can see how much harder and more responsible in their zone [Carolina] is playing."
In the second period, Atlanta surrendered that lead for good. Eight seconds after the Thrashers had earned a power play, Pavel Kubina received a tripping penalty in the offensive zone.
In the ensuing 4-on-4, Ray Whitney held Atlanta defenders at bay in the offensive zone with some slick skating and then from the top of the slot found Brandon Sutter
for a one-timer that tied the game just 1:52 into the period.
Sutter and Whitney were involved in Carolina's second goal when Jussi Jokinen
scored his team-leading 28th goal. Jokinen put the puck into a wide open goal after taking a feed from Sutter behind the net at 9:23 of the second.
Ward made the goals stand up. Four minutes into the second, he robbed Niclas Bergfors on a point-blank shot.
Less than nine minutes later, he made a glove save on Clarke MacArthur after Toby Enstrom had set him up with a golden chance. Ward then stopped Little point blank with about two and a half minutes left in the period.
"I was excited and I was also a bit nervous because I had been away from the game for so long, but when I get in the net I expect to perform to my potential," he said. "That's only fair to the team. I went out there and I tried to have some fun to relax and have some fun and got rewarded."
Erik Cole put an exclamation on the night with a slap shot with 4:11 left in regulation after Atlanta continually turned the puck over in its own end. Jokinen added an empty-net goal with 2:08 left.
"We knew the importance of this game to them and it was a little bit of a different than how they played in Raleigh [compared to] at the start of the game," Ward said. "They came at us real hard [on Saturday]. Today they kind of looked like they got it going in the second period."
Carolina disrupted Atlanta in the neutral zone all night and made it difficult for the Thrashers to get chances off the rush, as Atlanta prefers.
"It's a credit to our team," Ward said. "Maybe when you do that, teams get frustrated."