The Carolina Hurricanes are entering the new year still on top of the Southeast Division, but they know they'll have to start playing better if they hope to stay there.
The Hurricanes will be trying to increase their division lead on Wednesday as they host the Atlanta Thrashers in a matchup between Southeast rivals.
Carolina (20-18-3) is coming off a 6-9-0 December, but still leads the division with 43 points - four more than both Atlanta (19-20-1) and the Florida Panthers. The Hurricanes won back-to-back games just once last month, falling to 9-14-0 over their last 23 games.
"The good thing is that we haven't played well for the whole season, and we're still sitting there," captain Rod Brind'Amour said.
The Hurricanes closed out 2007 with their second straight loss, 4-1 against the New York Islanders on Monday. They gave up all four goals in the second period two days after yielding three goals in the second in a 4-1 loss at Columbus.
"We've been having great games, and then not so good, we've been so up and down," forward Eric Staal told the Hurricanes' official Web site. "We've got to regroup again and look forward to the next game. We are still first in our division, but to win the big prize we need to be playing better hockey than we are right now, and we know that."
Craig Adams scored the lone goal Monday, while Staal had his four-game goal streak and seven-game point streak end. The Hurricanes, who rank last in the NHL with a 75.9 penalty-kill percentage, allowed three power play goals.
"We're giving up so many easy power-play goals," Brind'Amour said. "They don't really have to work for them, it's just back to the point and slap it into the net. It's just frustrating."
John Grahame allowed three goals in a four-shot span before he was pulled for Cam Ward, who stopped nine of the 10 shots he faced. Grahame made his first start since Dec. 20 in place of Ward, who is 2-5-0 with a 3.93 goals-against average in his last seven starts.
The Hurricanes have dropped four straight against the Thrashers at home but have won two of three overall on their own ice.
"We're still sitting there," coach Peter Laviolette said. "That board in the room is sometimes misleading or deceiving. There are teams below us that have more points than we do. We've been fortunate because other teams in our division are doing the same thing we're doing."
Atlanta has lost three of four, including Monday's 5-2 defeat in Boston. Colin Stuart scored his first NHL goal in just his second career game, and Bobby Holik also scored.
The Thrashers, who also allowed three power play goals, had scored at least three goals in 11 of their previous 13 games.
"I think we stopped trying so hard and stopped doing the easy things and cost ourselves a game," said goalie Kari Lehtonen, who fell to 1-3-0 with a 2.78 GAA over his last four starts.
Ilya Kovalchuk, who leads the NHL with 32 goals, had just one assist after getting three goals and two assists in his previous two games.