Almost single-handedly, Ondrej Pavelec made sure the Atlanta Thrashers went into the all-star break with a good feeling after the toughest stretch of their season.
Pavelec turned aside all 36 shots for his third shutout, a 1-0 victory over the Alex Ovechkin and the Washington Capitals on Wednesday night.
The Thrashers' goalie needed a little help, of course. Nik Antropov scored the lone goal just past the midway point, but it was mainly Pavelec who ensured Atlanta won for just the fifth time in 17 games.
"This is totally his win," Antropov said. "All the guys played great, but he had some key saves for us and put us in great position to win this game."
The rare victory sent the Thrashers into the break clinging to a one-point lead over Carolina for the final playoff spot in the Eastern Conference. The Hurricanes kept pace, beating the New York Islanders 4-2.
"What a big game for us," Pavelec said. "The last couple of games we did not play very well. This was the last game before the break. We played as a team, we played all 60 minutes and we played at 100 per cent. The guys were really committed. This is a big win for us."
Atlanta, coming off an embarrassing 7-1 rout at Tampa Bay, snapped a three-game losing streak. They did it without all-star defenceman Tobias Entrom, sidelined two to four weeks with a broken finger, and Evander Kane, who missed his fourth straight game because of an upper-body injury.
It was Atlanta's first win in regulation since Jan. 5, the lone victory over the next eight games a 3-2 shootout triumph against Florida.
"It was time to step up," Pavelec said. "I didn't think one goal would win the game. Our guys played great around the net. They did a great job."
Antropov scored at 11:21 of the second period after Washington defenceman Jeff Schultz lost control of a bouncing puck backing into his own zone.
Freddy Modin gobbled it up gliding toward the corner and passed back to Antropov, breaking in all alone on Semyon Varlamov. The Atlanta centre beat the goalie to the glove side for his ninth goal and fifth point in six games.
"I read the play," Antropov said. "Freddy was on the boards chipping it in and chipping it out. I read the puck, stayed high and Freddy found me. I looked back and there was no one around me. I had time to snap the puck and I scored."
Varlamov made 23 saves.
The Thrashers won for the fourth time in six games against their division rival this season, and two of Pavelec's shutouts have come against Washington. He also blanked the Capitals 5-0 on Nov. 19.
Not that Washington didn't throw everything it could at the Atlanta goalie. Ovechkin had a game-high eight shots on goal, and Brooks Laich got off seven.
"He made some great saves," Ovechkin said. "We tried to do our best, but we didn't score."
The Capitals have scored more than three goals only once in the last 15 games, a stretch that's included three shutouts. Their frustration was never more obvious than a sequence with about 7 ½ minutes to go, after the Thrashers had just killed off a Washington power play.
Schultz ripped a screened shot from just inside the blue-line, but Pavelec turned it aside with his right pad. The puck ricocheted off the boards and wound up back in front for Laich to get a whack at it. Pavelec stopped that one, too, and covered up amid a scrum of players in front of the net.
Schultz threw back his head in disbelief when the referee whistled the play to a halt.
"If you can't score, you can't score," Capitals coach Bruce Boudreau said. "It wasn't for lack of effort. Our power play was good. We just can't score goals right now. We're trying so hard, but we can't score goals."
Pavelec made another big stop in the final minute after the Capitals pulled Varlamov. Mike Green took a pass and moved in all alone off the right wing, ripping a shot from about 15 feet away. Pavelec whipped out his glove and snatched it out of the air.
Green skated on behind the net, looking as though he was about to slam his stick into the glass before catching himself.
"Sometimes," Pavelec said, "it feels lucky."