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Atlanta starts new year trying to end skid, top Buffalo

by Brian Hunter
THRASHERS (18-17-4) at SABRES (24-11-4)

Last 10: Atlanta 3-6-1; Buffalo 6-2-2

Season Series: Second of four meetings this season. Ilya Kovalchuk scored a pair of goals and Johan Hedberg stopped 40 shots as the Thrashers won their previous meeting with the Sabres at HSBC Arena, 4-2 on Oct. 17. It was Atlanta's sixth straight win over Buffalo dating back to January 2008.

Big Story: When the Thrashers last played the Sabres, their win was part of the best start in franchise history. Of late, however, the wheels have started to come off in Atlanta and the team begins play in 2010 just outside the top eight in the Eastern Conference. While the Thrashers have a potent offense and the tandem of rookie Ondrej Pavelec and the veteran Hedberg in goal has been competent, poor defensive play has led to the League's fifth-worst goals-against average at 3.15.

Team Scope:

A seven-game road trip has not been kind to Atlanta so far, as it has lost the first four to extend its season-high skid to six straight. The Thrashers still must face the Islanders and defending Stanley Cup champion Penguins before heading home.

Since winning a shootout 3-2 over the Rangers on Dec. 14, the Thrashers are 1-6-1 and have allowed 35 goals, at least four in every game with the exception of a 3-2 loss in New Jersey on Monday. They were blanked 4-0 by the Bruins on Wednesday.

"I can't see too many positives," said Hedberg, who relieved Pavelec in the second period. "The only thing you can take from it is you have to feel like it's a wakeup call for us as a team and we have to realize it's not fun. We've been in this situation the three years I've been here in Atlanta. We have good stretches and we have terrible stretches and all of a sudden the terrible stretch is too long and you're out of the playoff picture."

Sabres: The Northeast Division leaders have won their last two games in dramatic fashion, coming from behind in the third period against St. Louis and Pittsburgh. Wednesday's 4-3 victory over the Penguins was sparked by Drew Stafford's successful penalty shot midway through the second period when the Sabres were trailing by three goals. Stafford added another, Paul Gaustad scored the go-ahead goal in the third and Jason Pominville provided insurance with a power-play tally.

"We played well, we came back strong. Good character win," said Patrick Lalime, who stopped all 27 shots he faced after a rare instance in which Ryan Miller was pulled. "It's huge. We never let down."

Who's Hot:
Kovalchuk had goals in four straight and seven of nine for before he was shut out along with the rest of his Atlanta teammates by Boston. … Tim Connolly has three goals and three assists during a four-game points streak for Buffalo. Pominville also has a four-game points streak, registering two goals and three assists.

Injury Report:
Thrashers defenseman Mark Popovic is out with a broken foot. Goalie Kari Lehtonen has not played yet this season due to back surgery. … Sabres forward Nathan Gerbe is on injured reserve with a groin injury. Forward Derek Roy has missed the last two games with an upper-body injury, while forward Patrick Kaleta missed the Pittsburgh game with a leg injury.

Stat Pack:
Staying out of the penalty box could go a long way toward helping Atlanta in this game. The Thrashers have only killed off 12 of their last 22 shorthanded situations (54.5 percent) while the Sabres have connected on 3 of their last 11 power plays (27.3 percent).

Puck Drop: Stafford's heroics came after he was a healthy scratch for the previous game against St. Louis.

"It comes back to how you respond," Stafford said. "It's being professional about it, not feeling sorry for yourself. It's just going back to work. I was very fortunate enough to get some breaks tonight, and it just so happened to be the night after I got sat out. I'll take it."

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