By the time Ilya Kovalchuk took to center ice as Atlanta's No. 3 gunner in the shootout yesterday, the first thing on Tim Thomas's mind was retribution.
In the first period, after some confusion on Thomas's part, Kovalchuk beat the netminder with a flash of a wrister on a penalty shot that tied the game at 1-1 and wiped out the momentum the Bruins had after their first goal.
So when Kovalchuk looked to tie the shootout (Phil Kessel had beaten goalie Johan Hedberg), Thomas had other ideas.
Thomas sticked aside the winger's attempt to give the Bruins a 3-2 victory over the Thrashers before 17,565 at TD Banknorth Garden, the club's sixth straight win.
"That time I was more ready," said Thomas, who was awarded the team hard hat by Vladimir Sobotka, the previous steward, for his 26-save performance. "He's a great shooter anyways. It took a little luck to get the save on that one."
In the first period, after Dennis Wideman hooked Kovalchuk to snuff out a breakaway bid, referee Rob Shick awarded the Thrashers right wing a penalty shot at 6:41. Thomas thought there would be a TV timeout before Kovalchuk took the shot. So when Shick blew his whistle, Thomas believed he had a few minutes to prepare himself.
But just moments after the whistle, Kovalchuk was practically on top of Thomas, ready to rip off a wrist shot that would go far post and into the net.
"All of a sudden he's coming down on me," said Thomas. "It was kind of odd. He caught me off-guard there with the penalty shot. So it was good to get my revenge."
In overtime, Thomas nearly gave Kovalchuk a bunny of a goal. As a cleared puck approached his net, Thomas spotted Glen Murray up ice. Thomas thought he could connect with a long-distance pass. But Kovalchuk read the play, picked off the pass, and zoomed in on goal while the goalie scurried back into his net. Thomas stayed square to the puck and stuffed Kovalchuk's shot with 42.6 seconds remaining.
"There's no way I'm going to let him score," said Thomas. "I got a little greedy. I tried to hit Muzz for a breakaway. Him and [Marc Savard] were at the far blue line. [Kovalchuk] did a good job of picking it off. I was just trying to take away the center of the net and not make it easy on him."
Such saves were required in a game in which the Bruins, who had nine total goals in the last two wins over Pittsburgh and Ottawa, couldn't replicate that offense against the sinking Thrashers. The Bruins came out with some jump in their skates, as some strong cycling by Savard and Marco Sturm led to a Murray goal in the slot at 6:06 of the first period.
But after Kovalchuk's penalty shot, the Bruins lacked the juice they played with in their two previous games. The Thrashers clogged shooting lanes, blocking 17 shots (five apiece by defensemen Tobias Enstrom and Niclas Havelid). Atlanta cooled the sizzling Boston power play, even holding the Bruins scoreless during a 1:25 two-man advantage in the second period.
While the Bruins failed to beat Hedberg (33 saves) during the five-on-three, the Thrashers turned the game in their favor seconds after killing off the penalty. Thirty-five seconds after Garnet Exelby stepped out of the box, Bobby Holik jumped back on, too, setting his sights on Andrew Ference.
The Boston defenseman was manning the left point, where he settled the puck and was considering his options. Ference didn't spot Holik until the Atlanta captain was on top of him. Ference lost the puck to Jim Slater, who kicked off a two-on-one rush and buried a wrister top shelf at 17:18 to give Atlanta a 2-1 lead.
"I pounded my stick a little later than normal because I was watching the play," said Thomas, who spotted Holik headed straight for Ference. "I banged my stick and realized he wasn't hearing me. I was like, 'Oh no, I hope somebody else is talking to him down there.'
"Maybe his defensive partner or a forward was yelling. But he was obviously caught off-guard. He had no idea."
But for the fourth time this season, the Bruins rallied for a victory after trailing in the third period. Kessel, jamming in the corner, sent a puck out front that David Krejci, while falling to the ice, tapped past Hedberg at 11:53 for the tying goal.
And for the third time in six games, the Bruins claimed victory in the shootout.
"It was one of those nights where it was just a battle," said Zdeno Chara. "They played hard. We just didn't bury the chances we had and probably didn't play our best. But we found a way to win."