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Canadiens-Thrashers Preview

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The Montreal Canadiens have been in a horrible slump over the past month, spiraling down the Eastern Conference standings.

Completing a season sweep of a division leader could be a good way to get on track for a playoff push, and the Canadiens have a chance to do just that on Thursday when they visit the Atlanta Thrashers.

On Feb. 5, Montreal (33-29-6) was in fourth place in the East with 64 points, but it has gained just eight points since then, going 4-10-0.

The Canadiens have fallen all the way to 10th, one point behind Toronto and Carolina, which are tied for the conference's final playoff spot with 73 points.

Montreal endured a six-game losing streak from Feb. 6-17, and enters this contest having lost three straight following a 3-1 defeat to Boston on Saturday.

"That stage was about a couple of weeks ago," coach Guy Carbonneau said of his team's need to start winning. "That's the bad part, but the good part is we're still right there. There's still enough games to turn this around."

Montreal can start to regroup against an Atlanta team it has dominated this season. The Canadiens have won the first three meetings of the season with the Thrashers (35-23-10), outscoring them 11-4.

Montreal beat the Thrashers 4-1 at Philips Arena on Jan. 18, but has since gone 2-7-1 on the road.

Sheldon Souray had a goal and an assist in that win in Atlanta, and scored his team-leading 23rd goal on Saturday. Souray has a goal and three assists versus the Thrashers this season, while Michael Ryder has three goals and two assists against them.

Goaltender Jaroslav Halak has started six of seven games for the Canadiens since being called up from Hamilton of the AHL on Feb. 14, and after winning his first three NHL starts, he has lost his last three. The 21-year-old rookie made 33 saves against the Bruins as he continues to fill in for starter Cristobal Huet, who is out for the rest of the regular season with a left hamstring injury.

The Thrashers also went through a tough stretch in February, but unlike the Canadiens, they have been able to turn things around.

Atlanta, battling for first place in the Southeast Division with Tampa Bay, has gone 5-1-1 since a 1-6-1 stretch from Feb. 1-17. The Thrashers can match their longest winning streak of the season on Friday.

They won their fourth in a row on Tuesday by defeating Florida 4-2, as Keith Tkachuk scored his first two goals with Atlanta since being acquired in a Feb. 25 trade with St. Louis.

"When we acquired Keith, we knew he is a great player and a veteran, but he has an unbelievable presence at the net," coach Bob Hartley said. "He is strong, smart and knows how to position himself."

Tkachuk had 20 goals in 61 games with the Blues. He has six goals and 11 assists in 17 career games against Montreal.

Marian Hossa scored his team-leading 39th goal on Tuesday and has been carrying the Thrashers offensively of late, recording six goals and seven assists during an eight-game point streak.

While Hossa's been leading the offense, goalie Kari Lehtonen has improved his game in net to stabilize the defense.

Lehtonen stopped 38 shots against the Panthers, and is 4-0-0 with a 1.75 goals-against average since Feb. 26. He was 0-4-0 with a 3.56 GAA in his previous four outings.

"Kari made some unbelievable saves and bailed us out in the second period," Hartley said. "He is playing like a veteran now and he is confident in there."

Lehtonen has struggled against the Canadiens this season, though, going 0-2-0 with a 4.06 GAA.

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