TORONTO – Dustin Byfuglien may have ended a long scoring drought, but his Atlanta Thrashers can’t seem to shake their struggles.
The hulking defenceman recorded his first point in 13 games with a power-play goal Monday but was also guilty of a critical error as Atlanta dropped a 5-4 decision to the Toronto Maple Leafs.
With the score tied 3-3 in the third, Byfuglien coughed the puck up in front of his own goal to Nikolai Kulemin, who beat Thrashers netminder Ondrej Pavelec to give the Maple Leafs a lead they wouldn’t relinquish.
“Bad part of my game, but you live to fight another day,” he said.
Byfuglien’s struggles are just part of the reason Atlanta has experienced a sharp slide down the standings. The Thrashers were contending for the Southeast Division lead through the first 25 games of the season, but have won just five times in their past 21 outings and.
With 58 points, the Thrashers are tied with Carolina for the final playoff position in the Eastern Conference, but the Hurricanes hold three games in hand.
Atlanta is allowing a league-worst 34.2 shots against per game, which is why Pavelec believes the team’s defensive issues go well beyond one giveaway.
“It happens,” he said of the miscue. “Everybody makes mistakes. I don’t think it’s about one mistake. We can spend two minutes in our zone and make five mistakes. It’s awful.
“We can score the goals, we know that, but if we want to win the games we have to play much more defensively, be way better in our zone. Hopefully next time we’re going to be better.”
Byfuglien was primarily a forward during his time with the Chicago Blackhawks, but after acquiring him in a big off-season trade, the Thrashers moved him back to his natural position on defence. The move paid huge dividends early on and even with his current slump, Byfuglien still leads all blue-liners with 17 goals.
One reason for his success was being paired with Tobias Enstrom, a slick defender adept at both ends of the ice. Enstrom has now missed six games with a fractured finger and there’s no doubt the Thrashers —and especially Byfuglien—have missed his steadying influence.
“He’s a good defenceman, he’s got me where I am right now,” Byfuglien said. “But I thought our ‘D’ corps has come together very well without him, even though we’re not getting the results we want.”
Thrashers head coach Craig Ramsay said playing without his regular partner is just a reality Byfuglien needs to adjust to.
“They not only play well together, they really like each other, they get along extremely well, you can see a special bond between those two,” Ramsay said. “But if you’re going to play for a long time in this league you’re going to play with a lot of different people and play through some difficult situations and your job is to make the best of those difficult situations.”