Hours after being called up from the minors, the 24-year old rookie scored the only goal in a shootout, giving Atlanta a 4-3 victory over the Buffalo Sabres.
"I was kind of surprised," said Sterling, who played in his fourth NHL game this season after playing in 13 last season. "I haven't done great in shootouts in the American league the last two years, but [coach John Anderson] gave me an opportunity. I had to put it upstairs, and I got it right up."
"I had him for a couple of years in [the AHL with] Chicago," Anderson said. "I saw him score 55 goals and go about 60 percent on shootouts. When he gets around the net with a little bit of time, he's usually pretty deadly."
Sterling's chance in the fourth round of the tiebreaker came about because of Todd White, who forced overtime for Atlanta by scoring with 3.5 seconds remaining in regulation. He swatted in a rebound after Buffalo goalie Patrick Lalime could not control Ron Hainsey's slap shot from the high slot.
"I tried to go to he net," White said. "I saw it lying there and just went for it."
"In the last minute, we basically gave it away," Lalime said. "It squeezed through. He came with a two-handed swat and there was no way for me to hold it down."
"We have to make sure the puck stays in the corner or gets out," Buffalo defenseman Toni Lydman said.
For Buffalo, which earned a point with the shootout loss, it was little consolation. The Sabres have lost three of their last four games and are 10th in the Eastern Conference. They did move within two points of the eighth and final playoff spot.
Slava Kozlov and Marty Reasoner also scored for Atlanta, a 13th place team playing the role of spoiler. The Thrashers have won five straight, equaling their season-high.
"We're trying to grow as a team and set the standard for next year," Anderson said. "We want to win as many games as we can."
Derek Roy had a goal and an assist in a 3:12 span in the second period for the Sabres. Daniel Paille and Maxim Afinogenov also scored for the Sabres, and Patrick Lalime made 29 saves.
Kari Lehtonen stopped 34 shots for Atlanta, who played without star left wing Ilya Kovalychuk because of an upper-body injury. He was hurt Thursday night a 4-3 overtime win at Edmonton.
Kozlov opened the scoring on a power-play goal with 26 seconds left in the first period. He banged in a rebound after Lalime stopped an initial shot by Zach Bogosian.
In the second period, Roy fed Paille for a tying goal with 6:41 remaining. Roy chipped a loose puck into the offensive zone and backhanded a pass from the right corner to the charging Paille for a tip-in.
Roy then scored with 3:29 to go, putting Buffalo on top for good as his slap shot from the blue line was tipped by Atlanta defenseman Boris Valabik. Afinogenov made it 3-1 before the period's end by banging in a pass from Thomas Vanek.
Reasoner scored a short-handed goal with 6:34 remaining to get Atlanta to within one goal.
Lalime, making his ninth straight start, is 3-4-2 since taking over for injured starter Ryan Miller.
Atlanta's other five-game winning streak this season was done between Nov. 2-14.
All three games of the season series have been decided in overtime or shootouts. ... Kovalchuk, who leads Atlanta with 36 goals and 78 points, had not missed a game since last season, when he missed two straight on Feb. 1-2. ... Roy leads Buffalo with 15 multipoint games. ... Kozlov has played in 189 straight games. He can tie Bobby Holik's team record of 190 on Monday against Washington. ... Six of Buffalo's 13 remaining games will be at home.
Copyright by STATS LLC and The Associated Press
Arena: First Niagara Center Location: Buffalo, New York
Referees: Kerry Fraser, Dean Morton Linesmen: Mark Shewchyk, Greg Devorski