BOSTON - It had been more than a month since Michael Ryder's last goal and all that stood in his way this time was the goalie.
Ryder scored on a penalty shot with 7:29 remaining in regulation time to lead the Boston Bruins to a 3-2 victory over the Atlanta Thrashers on Saturday that clinched the Northeast Division title.
"I knew if I could score, it would get the team going," Ryder said. "We have a few games left, and we're hoping we can move up even further."
Ryder stole the puck from Thrashers defenceman Zach Bogosian at centre ice and was racing in alone on the goal when he was slashed by Atlanta's Johnny Oduya before he got to the crease. Ryder was given a penalty shot and he slowly made his way toward Ondrej Pavelec before firing a wrist shot over the goalie's left shoulder.
Tuukka Rask stopped 28 shots for the Bruins, who lead Montreal by 10 points and can finish no worse than a No. 3 seed in the Eastern Conference playoffs with home-ice advantage in the first round. Boston is two points behind Washington and three behind Philadelphia with four games remaining.
"It's what a lot of teams battle for," Bruins coach Claude Julien said. "I'm just glad that's out of the way.
"We've got to keep winning games and see where we end up."
Pavelec made 20 saves for the Thrashers, who were eliminated from playoff contention with the loss. The Thrashers pulled the goalie with over a minute left, but were unable to mount any sustained pressure in the Bruins' zone.
"I felt like we had a good start of the season. Other teams made up the ground," forward Bryan Little said, noting that the Thrashers went 4-17 over most of January and February. "We've been playing better here of late, but you can't take that much time off like we did."
Ryder was in a scoring slump when he was a healthy scratch March 15 after playing in 172 consecutive games for Boston. He had just one point in his next six appearances before he was benched again for two more games this week.
It was the first successful penalty shot of Ryder's career, and his first goal in 12 games since Feb. 27.
"It's nice to see him score that goal. It's a step in the right direction," Julien said. "When he starts getting his confidence out there and allowing things to happen and not thinking about things, he's going to be a good player again."
The Bruins scored first when Mark Recchi put in a rebound of Brad Marchand's backhand shot from the edge of the crease. It was the 576th of Recchi's career, 19th in NHL history.
Atlanta tied it when Dustin Byfuglien's shot popped into the air off Rask's stick and landed on the goalie's back before rolling into the net. It was Byfuglien's 20th goal of the season, leading all NHL defencemen, and was the Thrashers first goal in 17 power-play attempts.
But after taking a 2-1 lead on Evander Kane's goal 97 seconds into the second period, the Thrashers' power-play unit gave up Daniel Paille's short-handed goal at the 6:18 mark.
NOTES—Marchand won the team's seventh player award, announced before the game. ... Thrashers D Tobias Enstrom left the game in the first with an unspecified injury and did not return. ... Nik Antropov, who assisted on Atlanta's second goal, has points in four straight games. ... A Thrashers player hit the scoreboard in the third while trying to clear the zone. ... The Bruins improved to 15-4-1 against the Southeast. ... Shane Hnidy made his season debut. He signed Feb. 26 after missing most of the season when he injured his shoulder in Phoenix's training camp. ... Bruins F Shawn Thornton missed his second straight game since needing 40 stitches to close a gash in his forehead.