Season series -- The Thrashers lead the season series 1-0, after taking out the Panthers on Monday at Philips Arena.
Big story -- The Panthers will look to continue their surprising rise through the Eastern Conference against their struggling division rivals.
Thrashers -- Despite a loss to the Islanders on Thursday, Atlanta has quietly been one of the better teams in the East of late. In his second year as coach, John Anderson has the Thrashers on a strong run with wins in eight of their last 12 games. Anderson has deftly split starts between netminders Ondrej Pavelec and Johan Hedberg, while Atlanta's offense has been bolstered by solid production from Vyacheslav Kozlov, who has six points in his last six games, and the stunning resurgence of offseason acquisition Maxim Afinogenov, who has 11 goals and 14 assists on the season.
It is perhaps most incumbent on Atlanta, which has crept to sixth in the conference, to have a run at the postseason this year because of the impending free agency of sniper Ilya Kovalchuk. The world-class winger is having another stellar season with 15 goals and 10 assists in just 19 games -- Kovalchuk missed nearly three weeks with a broken bone in his foot. The club has already accommodated Kovalchuk by bringing in his one-time Russian League linemate and friend Nik Antropov, but a first playoff berth in three years would go a long way towards keeping him in Georgia.
Panthers -- Florida, and more specifically defenseman Keith Ballard, would probably like to forget the first time these two teams met. The Panthers lost to the Thrashers Monday on a goal with just six seconds remaining, but the lasting memory will be Ballard accidentally striking goaltender Tomas Vokoun in the head following a first-period Atlanta score. While swinging his stick at the net in frustration, Ballard caught Vokoun, who suffered a cut to his left ear and had to leave the ice on a stretcher.
While coach Peter DeBoer has said Vokoun will be fine and the cut to his ear is the sole injury from the incident, it has still been a tough period for Florida, which has just one win in its last seven games and hasn't won in regulation in two weeks. There have been some bright spots, most notably center Stephen Weiss, who scored a hat trick and potted the shootout-winner in a wild 6-5 win over Colorado Wednesday. That, however, was followed by a 6-2 loss to Washington Thursday. Despite those losses, the Panthers are far from out of the playoff race, but if they don't reverse momentum soon, that may no longer be the case.
Who's hot -- While Anderson has given Pavelec the bulk of the work, it might behoove him to trot out Hedberg. The veteran has five wins in his last six starts with a 2.15 goals against average. For Florida, Weiss' hat trick against the Avalanche wasn't his lone shining moment. The budding star has 14 points in his last 10 games.
Injury report -- Atlanta's Boris Valabik is questionable with an ankle injury, while the Panthers are without Kenndal McArdle with a left shoulder injury and Vokoun is still questionable with a lacerated left ear.
Stat pack -- When Florida opted not to trade defenseman Jay Bouwmeester last season in hopes of making the playoffs, the gamble fell short, and while the Panthers may not admit they shouldn't have traded him, they almost certainly wish they had the resources to keep him. In their last two seasons with Bouwmeester, the Panthers allowed a respectable 2.68 and 2.72 goals against per game in 2007-08 and 2008-09 respectively. Without the standout blueliner Florida's goals against has jumped up to 3.39 this season -- 27th in the League.
Puck drop -- While the Panthers have certainly struggled, they are not without hope. As an early-season stretch where it won eight of 11 games shows, Florida is more than capable of going on a hot streak and jumping back into the top eight in the East. A win against the Thrashers would be a nice confidence boost, and facing them at home might make it a little easier. Atlanta has dropped four of its last six visits to the BankAtlantic Center.