TORONTO – One well-timed goal gave Nik Antropov plenty of reasons to smile.
The big forward helped keep Atlanta’s playoff hopes alive by tipping home the winner in a 3-2 Thrashers victory over the Toronto Maple Leafs on Tuesday. Not only was it Antropov’s first ever goal against his former team, but it also mathematically eliminated Toronto from post-season contention for the fifth straight season.
“It’s good to hear,” he said with a grin.
Antropov played his first nine seasons with the Maple Leafs and was often a target of frustration from the home fans during his days with the team. He was booed here again as a visitor, but it didn’t bother him one bit.
“That’s OK, they can do whatever they want,” said Antropov. “We got two points and that’s all that matters right now.”
The victory helped Atlanta keep pace with the Bruins, who pulled out a 1-0 overtime win over New Jersey. The Thrashers sit two points back of Boston, Montreal and Philadelphia – all tied for sixth with 82 points – for the final playoff spot in the Eastern Conference.
They’ve still got a tough hill to climb since their five remaining games all come against quality opponents – two each with Washington and Pittsburgh and one against New Jersey. But at least they’re still in the race.
“It’s been a must-win for the last month or so it feels like,” said Thrashers forward Colby Armstrong. “We know what the schedule is. Five games left and we’ve got some tough teams coming up. We’re going to have to get rested up here as best we can for this last push.
“It’s really close.”
Even though fans in Toronto had long since abandoned hope of seeing playoff hockey this spring, a recent stretch of good play kept the team mathematically in the running until Tuesday. The Maple Leafs have gone 9-4-1 over their past 14 games but were unhappy with the effort against Atlanta.
“We handed them the game,” said coach Ron Wilson. “They did some things well, but we just gave them the game, essentially. Unfortunately.”
Maxim Afinogenov and Evgeny Artyukhin had the other goals for Atlanta (33-31-12).
Viktor Stalberg scored both for the Maple Leafs (28-35-13), who opened their final homestand of the season.
The loss was the first for rookie goaltender Jonas Gustavsson since before the Olympic break. He entered with a personal seven-game winning streak and was hoping to join exclusive company – the last Leafs goalie to win at least eight straight was Felix Potvin in October 1993.
He was fooled when Antropov scored just 57 seconds after Stalberg had tied the score 2-2. The six-foot-six Thrashers forward was standing in front and tipped home a Ron Hainsey point shot.
“I thought I had it at first, but somehow I think it went between my finger and my thumb,” said Gustavsson. “I think it bounced a bit, too. I didn’t expect it to bounce up like that.”
Goaltender Ondrej Pavelec did a good job of holding Atlanta in the game, especially late in the third period when the Leafs had a power play.
The 22-year-old Czech knew exactly how big the situation was.
“They had a couple scoring chances, but the guys in front of me did a great job,” said Pavelec. “I always saw the first shots. It’s a big win for us.”
Antropov made no secret of how important the game was personally for him. He’s a Canadian citizen and still calls Toronto home in the off-season, but had been held pointless in his first three games against his former team.
In addition to the game-winning goal, he also had an assist on Tuesday.
“I wanted to bounce back from that first game in Toronto,” said Antropov. “When we played early in December, I had an awful game. Today was the opposite.
“But personal stats are secondary for me, we’re battling right now for the playoff spot and that’s all that matters.”
One person who wasn’t surprised to see Antropov step up at a critical moment was Thrashers coach John Anderson.
“He’s been our rock all year,” said Anderson. “He’s been wonderful for us.”
Notes: Pavelec finished with 27 saves; Gustavsson had 22 … Brayden Irwin was scratched by the Leafs one day after signing with the team. He’s expected to make his NHL debut on Thursday or Saturday … Toronto’s Wayne Primeau and Jeff Finger also didn’t dress … Atlanta sat 48-year-old defenceman Chris Chelios for the eighth time in nine games … The Leafs had a record of 9-5-2 in March – just their second month above .500 this season … Announced attendance was 19,079.