DEVILS (30-32-4) at THRASHERS (28-28-11)
TV: MSG (HD), FS-S (HD)
New Jersey 8-2-0; Atlanta 3-6-1
Third of four meetings this season. The first two came in December and were won by the home team -- Eric Boulton
's first career hat trick highlighted a 7-1 Atlanta rout on Dec. 18, while ex-Thrashers Ilya Kovalchuk
(goal) and Johan Hedberg
(28 saves) were front and center in a 3-1 New Jersey victory on Dec. 31.
Perception is a funny thing -- while everyone around the NHL has been talking about the Devils' recent surge getting back them into playoff contention, the Thrashers haven't gotten a lot of attention as they've slumped over the same time period. But Atlanta is actually three points closer to the top eight than New Jersey entering Friday's action and comes off a key overtime win in Carolina that could get the team pointed back in the right direction.
There was little margin for error even before Tuesday's surprise 2-1 loss to Ottawa, and now New Jersey can afford even fewer hiccups down the stretch if they still want to be in playoff contention when the calendar turns to April. The Devils answered a second-period goal by Senators rookie Erik Condra when Patrik Elias
scored early in the third, but Condra struck again with just 2:13 remaining and New Jersey missed a chance to trim two more points off the deficit it faces.
"It could be a costly loss, but we have to get back to the next one," forward Brian Rolston said. "I don't think we're out of it yet."
Whether or not Atlanta gets in, the Thrashers are making things fun for their fans down the stretch -- in a stop-your-heart kind of way. Their last three wins have all come in overtime, including Wednesday's 3-2 decision against the Southeast Division rival Hurricanes, who are also part of the battle for eighth. Tim Stapleton, whose first goal of the season got the Thrashers to overtime in a game they won against the Maple Leafs on Feb. 27, provided the heroics this time by scoring his second at 1:38 of the extra period.
"We finally did it," goalie Ondrej Pavelec said about snapping a four-game losing streak to Carolina. "It didn't mean we didn't play well against them -- we played really well against them, but we couldn't find a way to win. Finally, we did it tonight, and it's a big win for us."
Hedberg and Martin Brodeur
have combined to hold Devils' opponents to two goals or fewer in 14 consecutive games. … Thrashers captain Andrew Ladd has 8 goals and 2 assists in his last 10 games.
New Jersey forward Zach Parise
(knee) and defensemen Bryce Salvador
(concussion), Matt Taormina
(ankle) and Matthew Corrente
(shoulder) are on injured reserve. … Atlanta defenseman Dustin Byfuglien (lower body) and forward Patrice Cormier (upper body) are day-to-day. Forward Jim Slater (concussion) and defenseman Freddy Meyer (head) are on injured reserve.
The Devils have played seven consecutive one-goal games, and five of their last six have ended with 2-1 final scores. … Chris Thorburn (1-2-3) and Anthony Stewart (0-3-3) are tied with Boulton for the Thrashers' scoring lead in the season series.
Hedberg got a nice reception when he replaced Brodeur during New Jersey's earlier loss at Philips Arena, then notched the win against his former team less than two weeks later. Brodeur has started five straight games since returning from a knee injury, but with another game on tap Saturday night against the New York Islanders, this presents an opportunity for coach Jacques Lemaire to give Hedberg a shot at coming back to haunt Atlanta.