The Atlanta Thrashers
are one of the three worst teams in the NHL in terms of goals allowed per game, so when their coach uses the term "art" to describe a defensive effort, you know his charges have delivered a gem.
But that's exactly what John Anderson called a second period in which his team limited the Philadelphia Flyers
to three shots in a 5-2 victory before 17,024 at Philips Arena that keeps the Thrashers' improbable playoff chances alive.
Center Nik Antropov had the game-winning goal and added an assist and Colby Armstrong scored twice for his fourth in two games as the Thrashers won their third straight, continuing a 3-0-1 stretch to pull within one point of Boston for the Eastern Conference's eighth and final playoff spot.
Thrashers goalie Johan Hedberg (25 saves) said he thought the game was one of the team's most complete all season.
"I agree," Anderson said. "I thought our second period was … art."
Antropov, whose 63 points represent a career high, has recorded eight points (five goals, three assists) in the last four games. His top line with Maxim Afinogenov and Niclas Bergfors skates with speed and passes with precision as if they have played together for years – even though Bergfors has played only 16 games for Atlanta.
"It's good," Antropov said. "It's working for us. It's easy. We didn't do anything special. We try to create some moments and some scoring chances and convert them into some goals."
Atlanta got on the board 1:48 into the game on a 3-on-3 breakout. Antropov and Afinogenov played give-and-give as they entered the Flyers' zone and then Afinogenov used his trademark speed down the left wing.
He threw a pass at the net that Bergfors deflected but was stopped by the right pad of Flyers goalie Brian Boucher (23 saves), but Bergfors converted the rebound. Since coming over from New Jersey in the Ilya Kovalchuk trade, the rookie forward has seven goals and six assists – two more goals than the superstar Kovalchuk and one more point.
Atlanta went up 2-0 nearly four minutes later when Armstrong netted his third goal in two games on a rebound of Ron Hainsey's point shot.
Atlanta appeared to get some motivation in the form of center Jim Slater, who, after skirmishing briefly with Flyers captain Mike Richards in front of the Flyers' bench, fought Daniel Carcillo 39 seconds into the game.
"They played with more passion and desperation than we did," Flyers defenseman Chris Pronger
said. "You cannot be a 'sometimes' team. You have to be an 'all-the-time' team. You have to play with energy, excitement and passion. When we don't play with that excitement level, we are not very good."
Carcillo pulled Philadelphia within one at 8:16 of the first when he deflected Pronger's shot from above the left-wing circle.
In the second period, Antropov got on the board at 10:23 on a play that started as a product of some good work on the cycle by the Thrashers' fourth line. Antropov, who credited Marty Reasoner, Evgeny Artyukhin and Eric Boulton for tiring out Philadelphia's defense and then making a smart change, connected from close range on a feed from behind the net by Bergfors.
The Flyers' fourth line got them back to 3-2 when Blair Betts
put Darroll Powe's pass high past Hedberg's blocker with 5:26 left in the second period. It was the Flyers' third and final shot of the period.
In each of Atlanta's previous two wins, the Thrashers have gotten out to two-goal leads only to see the game tied before winning. On Saturday, Philadelphia was never able to tie the game.
"We've been used to that the last few games," Hedberg said. "But tonight, our second period was very strong defensively and we didn't let them get much. We have to stay away from our own mistakes and don't beat ourselves and try to take advantage of our opportunities."
Bryan Little got Atlanta's fourth goal with 10:17 left in regulation by putting a rebound past a prone Boucher after the goalie had stopped Clarke MacArthur's breakaway try.
Armstrong got his second with 2:02 left in regulation, converting a pass from Toby Enstrom, who had two assists, as did MacArthur.
The teams meet again tonight in Philadelphia. A win could put Atlanta back in eighth if Boston loses in regulation to the New York Rangers on Sunday.
Considering that Atlanta had lost five straight in regulation before their current streak and traded their star in Kovalchuk less than two months ago, few would consider such a turn events anything but miraculous.
"Yeah, I mean, it's good that we're closing that gap," Armstrong said. "We have to keep playing. We have lots of games left and we see how quick it can change for the better and it can go the other way. So we're just trying to keep our head on straight and keep rolling with the good stuff. It's a short season for us."