BOSTON – When Phil Kessel got into a stick-swinging duel with Atlanta defenceman Boris Valabik, Bruins captain Zdeno Chara came to his teammate’s defence and picked up 17 minutes of penalty time.
Kessel thought it said a lot about Chara’s role on the team.
But it said a lot more about Kessel’s.
“Phil’s a very important part of our team,” Boston goalie Manny Fernandez said Saturday night after the Bruins beat the Thrashers 4-2 for their 11th straight home win.
Kessel had a goal and an assist to extend his points streak to 15 games, and Michael Ryder scored two goals to help the Bruins beat Atlanta for the second straight night. Fernandez stopped 20 shots to win his eighth straight game and improve to 6-0 lifetime against the Thrashers.
Kessel’s goal was his 19th of the season, already tying a career high, and his points streak is the longest in the NHL this season.
“He’s been hot with the stick, and it’s something we’ve been looking for a long time – someone that can be a threat every night,” Bruins coach Claude Julien said. “He’s always been comfortable in the offensive zone.”
Dennis Wideman also scored for Boston, which has won 16 of its last 19 overall to move to the top of the Eastern Conference standings.
One night after Boston won 7-3 in Atlanta, thanks in part to a goal and two assists from Kessel, the Bruins completed the home-and-home sweep and sent the Thrashers to their 11th loss in 13 games. Nathan Oystrick and Marty Reasoner scored for Atlanta, and Johan Hedberg made 25 saves.
The Thrashers called a team meeting after the game, and left Boston looking for answers.
“We’re not happy with what’s going on,” forward Jason Williams said. “We’re at rock bottom right now. We’re trying to find out why things didn’t work.’
The Bruins took the lead on a power play six minutes into the game when Kessel got a crossing pass to the right of the goalie and put a wrist shot off Hedberg’s pads. The rebound bounced right back to Kessel, whose second shot found the net.
Blake Wheeler brought the puck over the blue-line and dropped it for Ryder, who shifted it over to his backhand and slid it past Hedberg to make it 2-0 with 6:17 left in the first. Oystrick cut it to 2-1 with 38 seconds left in the period when he took an errant pass from Todd White and slapped it in from the point.
Kessel was in the middle of it again in the second, when he began to mix it up with Valabik behind the net and Chara sped over to intervene. The damage: two minutes for instigating, five minutes for fighting and a 10-minute misconduct.
“Obviously, he was doing his job trying to play hard against Phil and I’m not going to let him do that,” Chara said. “And we both did what was necessary.”
Fernandez called the six-foot-nine Chara “the father of us all,” and Kessel said he thinks the big defenceman would do the same for anyone.
“It says a lot about him that he would come to my defence,” Kessel said. “It shows what kind of character he is.”
Chara’s absence didn’t stop Wideman from giving the Bruins a 3-1 lead with their second power-play goal of the game with 1:44 left in the second.
Ryder fought his way through traffic to make it 4-1 with 4:12 left in the game. But Atlanta made it 4-2 when Reasoner’s wrist shot from the point caromed in off the left post with 2:20 to play.
Ryder missed a hat trick when his blooper into the empty net at the buzzer was ruled too late.
Notes: The Bruins recalled F Martins Karsums from Providence of the AHL on an emergency basis and placed F Marco Sturm on long term injured reserve, retroactive to Nov. 17. … The Bruins wore their special event black jerseys for the game. … It’s the eighth time this season the Bruins have scored two or more power-play goals. … Bruins F Patrice Bergeron missed the game with the flu and Aaron Ward was out with an ankle injury. … Fernandez has a 1.67 goals-against lifetime against Atlanta.