ATLANTA (AP) - The Carolina Hurricanes have the league's best record, and there's nothing fluky about it.
Niclas Wallin scored on a deflection 16 seconds into the third period and the streaking Hurricanes won for the 12th time in 13 games, pulling away for a 5-1 victory over the Atlanta Thrashers on Thursday night.
The Hurricanes, who lead the NHL with 74 points, have won three in a row since a 5-2 loss at Washington ended a nine-game winning streak. They have an 18-point lead on second-place Tampa Bay in the Southeast Division - by far the biggest cushion for any first-place team.
``The fact that we've lost one of our last 13 pretty much is a good indicator of how we play,'' coach Peter Laviolette said. ``I don't think we've stolen a lot of games. We've worked hard, earned the points and played pretty good hockey.''
Then there's Atlanta, which is heading in the opposite direction. The Thrashers have lost four straight - one away from their worst skid of the season - but they are still clinging to the final playoff spot in the Eastern Conference.
The slump was preceded by a five-game winning streak, the longest in franchise history.
``We have the same team that we did before,'' coach Bob Hartley said. ``But the race is getting tougher and tougher. It's only January, but we're already looking at scores after the game to see who's losing and who's winning.''
The Thrashers fell behind 2-0 in the second period, but began to turn things around after star Ilya Kovalchuk was struck above the lip by Eric Staal's stick and fell to the ice with blood streaming down his face. No penalty was called, and Kovalchuk slammed his helmet in disgust as he headed to the locker room for about 15 stitches.
With 59 seconds left in the period, Patrik Stefan swatted in a rebound with one hand on the stick to halve the deficit.
But whatever momentum the Thrashers took from Stefan's inspired play was quickly wiped out by Wallin's second goal of the season. With the teams skating 4-on-4, the defenseman slipped deep into the Atlanta zone and deflected Bret Hedican's shot past Kari Lehtonen.
Craig Adams scored with just under 9 minutes remaining after a tremendous individual effort by Erik Cole to get to the net. Cole went to his backhand to power around Greg de Vries, then slipped past Andy Sutton near the crease.
Ray Whitney tacked on a power-play goal with 19 seconds remaining. Atlanta was down a man after Marian Hossa's frustration boiled over, leading him to pick a fight with Carolina's Oleg Tverdovsky.
Hedican and Matt Cullen scored the first two goals for the Hurricanes.
``After the first five minutes, I thought the game was all us,'' Laviolette said. ``They turned it on a little bit in the second period for another five minutes.''
Cam Ward made 30 saves, but he also benefited from Atlanta's errant shooting. The Thrashers missed the net at least a half-dozen times on good scoring chances.
``It seems like every game, we have chances to get on the board first but we're not capitalizing,'' Hartley said. ``We're firing blanks right now.''
It was an especially tough day for Lehtonen. Before the game, he decided not to play for Finland in the Olympics because he's still recovering from a groin injury that kept him out most of the first three months of the season.
``It was definitely the hardest decision of my life,'' Lehtonen said. ``I'm very disappointed.''
Notes: Cullen, who picked up his 20th goal of the season, was seen holding an ice pack on his face after the game. He was struck by a puck with 6 1/2 minutes to go and may have fractured his jaw. ... Carolina improved to 13-7-3 on the road. ... Lehtonen made 28 saves. ... Carolina tied the season series with the Thrashers at 2-2-1 after losing the first two games. ... Atlanta leads Toronto by one point, while Montreal and Boston are two points back in the race for the eighth playoff spot in the East.