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Thrashers' playoff hopes alive as Antropov buries Leafs

Toronto Maple Leafs forward Phil Kessel tries to get past Atlanta Thrashers defenseman Tobias Enstrom during the second period of their game in Toronto on March 30, 2010.


Nik Antropov's strongest memory of playing for the Toronto Maple Leafs is probably the sound of all those boos over his nine seasons from the Air Canada Centre faithful.

Aside from being drafted 10th overall out of nowhere in 1998, Antropov's greatest sin seemed only to be the bad luck to have a serious injury to each knee and to not turn into a 6-foot-6 scoring machine despite an abundance of hard work. The booing bothered him greatly, but the affable Kazakh only rarely let it show.

It was the same story Tuesday night when Antropov gained a measure of sweet revenge. After the Leafs made it a game by tying the score early in the third period, Antropov struck one minute later for the winning goal in a 3-2 decision for the Atlanta Thrashers, an exceedingly important two points for them in the playoff race after they lost the previous night.

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But the really sweet part of that for Antropov was that his 24th goal of the season mathematically eliminated the Maple Leafs from the NHL playoffs. Antropov tried to play it down but he allowed a small glimmer of satisfaction to show.

"I didn't know that until you told me," he said in a media scrum. "It's nice to hear. What's most important is that my team won."

The Thrashers are chasing the Boston Bruins for the eighth and last playoff spot in the Eastern Conference. By losing to the Carolina Hurricanes on Monday night, they blew a chance to tie the Bruins but they managed to put aside their fatigue and hold off the Leafs in the second of back-to-back home-and-road games.

It was not an entertaining game by any stretch. There were long periods of sloppy and tentative hockey. Antropov attributed this, on the Thrashers' part, to playing a team that had nothing to lose.

"This team is not in the playoff race, they are playing for next season," he said. "It's really tough, That's why we sat back in the first period.

"Then we scored two quick goals and saw we could get those two points. We have a hard-working group of guys, so it's nice to bounce back."

But that was as far as the rewards went last night for the Thrashers. The Bruins managed to beat the New Jersey Devils in overtime to stay two points ahead of Atlanta with 82 points. The Thrashers have just five games left in the season to six for the Bruins.

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Antropov finished the game with a goal and an assist and he is the leading points man for the Thrashers with 66 in 73 games. Maxim Afinogenov also had a goal and an assist. But all Antropov would say about his personal matters was that it was a much better night than his first game back in Toronto after the Leafs traded him a year ago when the Thrashers lost 5-2.

"Yeah, absolutely, I wanted to bounce back from that first game," he said. "I had an awful game.

"But personal stats are secondary for me. The battle for the playoff spot is all that matters. We got two points and now we move on."

Viktor Stalberg scored both goals for the Leafs and both came after head coach Ron Wilson moved him to the first line with centre Tyler Bozak.

"Well, we really didn't have much to lose," Stalberg said of the new combination. "[The Thrashers]were backing off a bit and gave us room.

"We didn't play very well for two periods so you knew we were going to have to do something like shake the lines up."

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About the Author
Hockey columnist

A native of Wainfleet, Ont., David Shoalts joined The Globe in 1984 after working at the Calgary Herald, Calgary Sun and Toronto Sun. He graduated in 1978 from Conestoga College and also attended the University of Waterloo. More

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