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First-place Atlanta Thrashers eyeing their first trip to playoffs @NHLdotcom

(AP) - The Atlanta Thrashers got a taste of it last season: the rush of having a whole season ride on every game, every period - heck, every shift.

It was exhilarating. It was excruciating. And, in the end, it was bitterly disappointing.

Sure, the Thrashers went right to the end of the season with a playoff-like intensity. But when it was done, they missed out on the real thing by two measly points. They sat at home while 16 other teams played for the Stanley Cup.

The Thrashers are determined not to let it happen again.

"This team is on a mission to make the playoffs," left-winger Slava Kozlov said. "Nobody cares about their personal stats."

Maybe this will finally be the season. Since entering the NHL in 1999, Atlanta has never been to the playoffs. Columbus, which joined the league a year later, is the only other franchise lacking a post-season entry on its resume.

The Thrashers arrived at the all-star break with a 27-15-8 mark after Saturday's 3-1 win over the New York Rangers, first in the Southeast Division, a spot they've held most of the season.

Despite a bit of a slump since New Year's Day, there's still a strong sense that the long, tedious - and often frustrating - process of building an expansion team is about to pay off.

"We don't want to look back at last year," defenceman Niclas Havelid said. "But we want to remember what this team learned last year."

The Thrashers learned that getting off to a dismal start would cost them dearly at the end. They learned that taking too many penalties is devastating in the new NHL. They learned that a team must have a solid guy in the nets. They learned that scoring plenty of goals doesn't really matter if they're letting the other team score, too.

In the end, they learned that all those things added up to missing the playoffs.

"The team learned to deal with pressure," coach Bob Hartley said. "For the first time in our history, we were playing games in March and April that really meant something. Of course, it would have been even better if we had made the playoffs."

To the Thrashers' credit, they didn't blow up a team that many felt had underachieved in 2006. Instead, they tinkered around the edges.

The salary cap prevented Atlanta from re-signing Marc Savard, the league's ninth-leading scorer with 97 points. But general manager Don Waddell knew he still had plenty of offensive punch with Ilya Kovalchuk, Marian Hossa and Kozlov, so there was room to bring in cheaper players who would add some much-needed grittiness up front.

Jon Sim and Steve Rucchin were signed as free agents. Glen Metropolit came back to the NHL after playing in Europe the past three years. Individually, none of them comes close to matching Savard's offensive skills. Collectively, they're doing those little things - checking, harassing, hustling - that keep the other team off the scoreboard.

But no one has been more important than goalie Kari Lehtonen, who finally brought some stability to a position that has been Atlanta's weak link ever since it entered the league. The 23-year-old Finn came into camp in the best shape of his life, not wanting a repeat of the groin problems that plagued him much of the season.

"I did things right during the summer, and it's carried over to the season," said Lehtonen, the second pick in the 2002 entry draft. "I want to help this team make the playoffs."

Heading into the weekend, Lehtonen had played in 41 games - three more than all of last season - with a goals-against average of 2.81 and a save percentage of .911. He takes up a huge chunk of the net with his size (six-foot-four, 200 pounds), plays well positionally and never gets too high or too low.

For a team that went through five goaltenders in 2005-06, it's been a godsend to have some stability in the nets.

"When you say a team is playing with a lot of confidence, whether it's us or anyone else, you usually just have to look at the goalie," Hartley said. "Any team that is doing well is going to be getting strong goaltending."

Up front, Kovalchuk remains the team's most exciting player, but Hossa has developed into one of the best all-around forwards in the league. In addition to being one of the NHL's leading scorers and a brilliant finisher, he does some of his best work when he doesn't have the puck.

For example, Hossa set up the Thrashers' only goal Thursday night by knocking a Montreal player off the puck, which allowed Kovalchuk to feed a pass to Bobby Holik, parked all alone in front of the net.

Coming over from Ottawa before last season in a blockbuster trade involving Dany Heatley, Hossa played well in his debut with the Thrashers (39 goals, 92 points). He seems even more comfortable this year.

After the all-star break, the Thrashers will play their next six games at home, giving them a chance to put some distance on defending Stanley Cup champion Carolina in the division race. Then, while the circus takes over Philips Arena, Atlanta heads out West to start a six-game road trip that may well determine if this team does make the playoffs for the first time.

"We can all taste it," Sim said. "We all want it. A lot of guys in this locker-room have never made the playoffs. Let me tell you: There's no better feeling than Game 1."

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