ATLANTA - Atlanta's Ondrej Pavelec has been one of the NHL's best goalies this season, entering Thursday's game against Boston second in save percentage and third in goals-against average.
However, one quirk of Pavelec's play has been his performance in shootouts. Remarkably, he ranked 50th of 50 goalies to compete in a shootout in save percentage with a paltry .546 this season entering Thursday, stopping just six of 11 attempts.
But when minor-league call-up Tim Stapleton, who had been on three planes in 24 hours, scored first for Atlanta in the shootout on Thursday, it changed the dynamic. Pavelec smothered Tyler Seguin's try in close with his blocker and then after Bryan Little scored for Atlanta, Pavelec stopped Blake Wheeler after Wheeler lost control of the puck, it dribbling off his stick.
It all spelled Pavelec's first victory in eight career shootouts -- and a 3-2 win for the Thrashers, who ended a season-longest four-game losing streak before a season-high crowd of 17,624 at Philips Arena.
"I didn't know if I was supposed to laugh or cry," said Pavelec, who made 42 saves to get Atlanta to the shootout. "It felt good, to be honest."
It's not just Pavelec who has struggled in the shootout, it's been the team as a whole. Chris Mason won Atlanta's first shootout of the season against Anaheim on Oct. 14 - the Thrashers' fourth game - but Atlanta lost its next four. The Thrashers had scored only three times on 18 shots all season before Thursday.
Coach Craig Ramsay talked about the effect of having Stapleton score to give Atlanta a 1-0 lead before Pavelec faced his first shot.
"I think Pav puts a lot of pressure on himself," Ramsay said. "He understands (that) you can't hide from those things because everybody wants to mention it and talk about it any way, so you can't hide. He's a competitive guy and to have a lead now, I'm sure he just said, 'Let's make this happen.' That's the one thing about going first when you have the home advantage you get to go first and if you score it really does change kind of the feel of what the shootout is."
Atlanta's power play, which entered the game on a 1-for-17 slide in the previous four games, converted twice, with both goals coming from defenseman Tobias Enstrom. With Nathan Horton in the penalty box for tripping Brent Sopel during a Bruins' power play, Enstrom scored much as he did the first time around -- by throwing a none-too-hard shot from the left point on net that eluded Tim Thomas -- in this case, Andrew Ladd screened the goalie.
Enstrom is often overshadowed by defense partner Dustin Byfuglien who leads all NHL defensemen in goals and points. But he entered the day fourth in the League in points by a defenseman with 29, and increased that total to 31 -- 7 goals and 24 assists.
"Enstrom is very good at getting behind the screen," said Thomas, who made 30 saves. "He is really good at that. It's a talent. Some night his shots don't go because he won't shoot it hard and it gets picked up by the defense. He just gets behind the screens so the goalie can't see him."
Boston saw its three-game winning streak end. The streak began a week ago with a 4-1 victory against the Thrashers -- a game in which referees doled out five game misconducts. There were no repercussions this time.
The Bruins took their first lead, 2-1 by scoring 55 seconds into the second period. Wheeler put a low wrister just inside the far post as he came down the right wing, getting off his shot before Byfuglien could close the gap.
Atlanta scored first, only 3:23 into the game with the Bruins' Marc Savard off for slashing Chris Thorburn. Enstrom's shot from the left point seemed to hit off the stick of at least one Boston defender before it fluttered past Thomas and into the net.
The Bruins tied the game with 5:51 left in the first period, as Patrice Bergeron picked up a turnover in the neutral zone and skated in 2-on-1. Even with an Atlanta player getting a stick on Bergeron's, the Bruins center put a seeing-eye backhander past Pavelec's blocker.
It was Bergeron's second goal on Pavelec in the last week. The other came on a shorthanded breakaway on Dec. 23. Pavelec was asked if he was relieved that Bergeron was not one of Boston's first two shooters.
"They have a lot of players who can score the goals," he said, "especially him. He scored a couple goals on me in a shootout and he's got really good hands, but, like I said, they have a lot of good players who can score goals."