|Milan Lucic (goal No. 9) and Phil Kessel joined forces to give the Bruins a 6-2 lead in the third. (John amis/Associated Press)|
ATLANTA - Yes, the Bruins scored on their first two shots. Yes, they chased Thrashers starting goalie Ondrej Pavelec after they took a 3-0 first-period lead. Yes, they won their 20th game of the season, a milestone they didn't hit last season until January. Yes, they turned the third period into a laugher against an embarrassed Atlanta squad.
Even so, a 7-3 win over the lowly Thrashers - equal-opportunity abuse of Pavelec (three goals) and backup Johan Hedberg (four strikes) - had too many negatives for a rout to contain.
The Bruins lost Aaron Ward after the defenseman, returning from an ankle injury after a four-game absence, skated only two shifts for 62 seconds of ice time. Later in the first period, Petteri Nokelainen departed with an upper-body injury and did not return.
And before tightening things up in the final period, the Bruins ran around too much in their zone and forced Tim Thomas (30 saves) to turn in a far busier effort than he should have been asked to log.
"Maybe we didn't make the strong plays all the time," said coach Claude Julien. "We're trying to work ourselves out of a little bit of a funk. You're going to say it's 7-3 and we're still doing some good things. The way we played the month of November, I guess the expectations are high for everybody. I think that's why we have a tendency to look for all those sloppy plays at times. There's still a lot of good things going on, but we have to kind of settle ourselves down a little bit to make some stronger plays at times."
The Bruins tucked their first shot of the game behind Pavelec at 3:31. With David Krejci stickhandling on the right wing, defenseman Mark Stuart joined the rush, drove to the net, and was in perfect position to receive the center's feed and tap the puck past Pavelec.
Thirty-seven ticks later, the Bruins put their second shot on goal. Pavelec failed to stop that one as well. The play started when Matt Hunwick won the puck off the left wall and slid a pass to Nokelainen. The fourth-line forward flipped a shot on net that was deflected by Stephane Yelle past Pavelec at 4:08.
Pavelec was chased at 8:41 after Zdeno Chara, shaking off the check of winger Slava Kozlov, drove behind the Atlanta net and curled a backhand shot on goal that the netminder couldn't handle. Phil Kessel was credited with an assist, extending his scoring streak to 14 games.
Pavelec's bottom line in the first period: three goals allowed on four shots.
"It was one of those games where I wouldn't have stopped a beach ball," said Pavelec, who came back in for 8:47 in the third period. "If I want to play in the NHL, I have to be better than that."
But even after taking a 4-0 first-period lead (Michael Ryder canned a top-shelf power-play goal after walking the puck off the left wall), the Bruins did not look comfortable in their zone. Forward Todd White banged home a power-play goal at 16:16 of the first, and the Thrashers kept on buzzing in the second period that stayed scoreless, thanks to Thomas's 13-save effort. After looking to Thomas to hold the fort in the second, the Bruins finally put things out of reach in the third period with a power-play goal. At 17:40 of the second, forward Joey Crabb was tossed (boarding, game misconduct) for running Kessel into the glass. Kessel, slow to get up after the hit, gained his revenge by scoring his 18th goal at 1:15 of the third during Crabb's 5-minute major, giving the Bruins a more comfortable four-goal pad.
"This is the NHL," said Thomas. "This is the same NHL you guys have been watching over the last couple years. A three-goal lead isn't necessarily completely safe."
Milan Lucic and Stuart added garbage-time goals, and winger Ilya Kovalchuk and Kozlov scored in the third period for the Thrashers.
There was rough stuff in each period. In the first, Shawn Thornton squared off with Atlanta tough guy Eric Boulton. Later in the first, after the Bruins took a 3-0 lead, Chara was challenged by forward Chris Thorburn and engaged in his first fight of the season.
In the second period, Boulton tangled with Lucic. The final fight took place in the third period, when Thornton took on the challenge of 6-foot-7-inch, 235-pound defenseman Boris Valabik.
Ward, who breezed through the morning skate and pregame warm-ups without limitations, did not return to the bench after leaving early in the first. Then, with approximately five minutes remaining in the first period, Nokelainen went to the dressing room. Atlanta forward Eric Perrin belted Nokelainen into the boards. Without picking up his stick, Nokelainen got to his skates and headed straight for the dressing room, tucking his right arm awkwardly against his torso.
"We talked this morning and after the warm-up, [Ward] felt ready to go," said Julien, who said he didn't think Ward aggravated the injury. "Obviously, that wasn't the case."
If both players are unavailable tonight, Matt Lashoff and Vladimir Sobotka would most likely enter the lineup in the rematch against the Thrashers at TD Banknorth Garden.