Axelsson checks in with winner
His third-period goal gives Bruins their second straight victory
ATLANTA -- He is best known for his defensive skills, but his teammates will tell you he has plenty of offensive talent. Last night, P.J. Axelsson went from checking force to scoring hero as he potted the winner with 7:02 left in regulation as the Bruins beat the Atlanta Thrashers, 3-2, at Philips Arena.
Wayne Primeau won the faceoff in the left circle of the Atlanta zone and Brad Isbister protected the puck in the left corner, spinning and cutting like a whirling dervish. He heard Primeau calling for the puck, gave it to him, and Primeau found Axelsson off to the left of goalie Kari Lehtonen. Axelsson beat Lehtonen outside the right post at 12:58, giving the Bruins their second straight victory and moving them up 2 more points in the standings, 4 points out of the eighth and final playoff spot in the Eastern Conference.
''It's always nice to get a goal, it doesn't happen that often," said Axelsson. ''Izzy and Primeau did all the work on that one."
In dealing with yet another opposition offensive star -- in this case Ilya Kovalchuk -- Boston coach Mike Sullivan employed a different tack than in the previous two contests. Instead of having Axelsson shadow Kovalchuk, as he did with Jaromir Jagr against the Rangers Saturday and Alexander Ovechkin in Washington Monday, he elected to have Axelsson's line, with Primeau and Isbister, match up against Kovalchuk's line, with center Marc Savard and wing Peter Bondra. Defensively, that seemed to work fairly well.
On the road, when a team gets the lead it makes it somewhat easier to get the matchups it wants. To that end, Boston struck first at 15:31 on Marco Sturm's 18th tally of the year. Patrice Bergeron had the initial opportunity, which Lehtonen held off. But when Lehtonen attempted to poke check away a loose puck at the top of the crease, Sturm beat him to it and buried it.
The Thrashers tied it on a power play at 17:10. With Hal Gill off for tripping, Jaroslav Modry fired a shot from just inside the blue line that veteran Scott Mellanby tipped past the glove of Bruins goalie Tim Thomas. It was Mellanby's sixth tally of the year.
Atlanta took a 2-1 lead late in the period on a fluke play. Savard was driving to the net and Gill went down to try to take away any shooting lane. Gill lost his footing and made contact with Thomas in the crease. Savard retained possession of the puck and backhanded a high shot at the net from outside the left post that the goalie tried to snag. Instead, he batted the puck in with 1:25 remaining on the clock.
''I saw on the replay that [Gill] was at least touching me, but I don't know if he impeded me," said Thomas. ''It was just total reflex. Now I know how [defensemen feel] when the puck comes to them in the slot and they just put it in their [own] net. It's just total reflex. I feel fortunate to give up a goal like that and still win the game."
The Bruins rallied for the equalizer on a power play at 11:28 of the middle period. With J.P. Vigier in the box for hooking at 10:13, Bergeron fired a shot from the left point that hit teammate Brad Boyes in the shoulder. It dropped down and Brad Stuart fired it from the right circle. It caromed off the stick of Thrashers defenseman Niclas Havelid and past Lehtonen. It was Stuart's seventh goal of the season.
Thomas came up big in the final seconds of the period when Atlanta put forth a strong offensive flurry. The best chance was by Savard, who backhanded a shot from the right slot with eight seconds remaining, but this time he couldn't get it high enough and Thomas turned it back.
The Bruins had plenty of chances in the third, with two five-on-three advantages. The first came early when Bondra was assessed a hooking call just 39 seconds in. Marian Hossa joined him in the box for tripping at 1:57. That gave the Bruins a two-man edge for 42 seconds, but they couldn't convert.
At 9:05, Andy Sutton was assessed a roughing call for drilling Boyes. Patrik Stefan went off at 10:04 for hooking Bergeron, and Boston's two-man advantage was for 1:01 but it still couldn't find the back of the net.
That set the stage for Axelsson's score.
''He's really the story," said Thomas. ''The past couple of games his defense has been incredible. I even called my dad and the first thing he said was, 'Tell that P.J. Axelsson he's playing great.' Then tonight he gets paid off with a game-winner. He deserves it. If he's not tired, he should be."