As the Eastern Conference playoff race continues to get tighter, the Carolina Hurricanes will need every win they can get down the stretch. Taking advantage of one of the league's last-place clubs would certainly help their cause.
Tied for eighth place in the East, the Hurricanes seek their ninth win in 11 contests against the host Atlanta Thrashers on Saturday night.
After a season-high five-game skid from Jan. 8-17, Carolina (32-26-5) has since posted an 11-6-0 record. Tuesday's 4-2 defeat at Ottawa ended a three-game winning streak, but the 'Canes rebounded with a 2-1 shootout victory over visiting Buffalo on Thursday.
Recently acquired Jussi Jokinen scored the game's only goal in the tiebreaker, helping the Hurricanes pull into a tie with the Sabres for the conference's final playoff spot. Both teams have 69 points, but Buffalo has a game in hand, and visits the league-worst New York Islanders on Saturday.
Carolina and Buffalo are also part of a crowded conference race in which six teams are currently separated by seven points for the final five playoff spots.
"We all know this is coming down to the last week, and it is for about six or seven teams," coach Paul Maurice told the Hurricanes' official Web site. "We're not going to run the table the rest of the year, so we're going to have to deal with games like Ottawa and come back and win a game like (Thursday night)."
Getting more strong performances from Cam Ward should help. After allowing three goals on nine first-period shots before being pulled against the Senators, he finished with 36 saves through overtime, then stopped all three attempts in the tiebreaker versus the Sabres.
"He's that good and that's our expectation of him," Maurice said of Ward, 10-6-0 with a 2.23 goals-against average in his last 16 games. "We get pleased and excited when the guy performs like he did."
Ward has also been solid against Southeast Division-rival Atlanta, going 13-6-2 with a 2.95 GAA in 21 career matchups and 3-2-0 with a 2.62 GAA in five this season. He permitted eight goals while losing the first two contests, but has limited the Thrashers to five on 71 shots in winning the last three.
On Jan. 31, Ward made 19 saves in a 2-0 home victory that improved the Hurricanes to 8-2-0 versus the Thrashers (22-34-6) since Jan. 4, 2008.
Carolina owns a 41-26 scoring advantage in those contests, and will oppose an Atlanta defense that has yielded the second-most goals in the league (218).
The Thrashers, also second-to-last in the NHL with 50 points, fell to 11-29-6 when surrendering three or more tallies in a game following Thursday night's 4-3 loss at Southeast-leading Washington.
Atlanta, currently at the bottom of the league with a 74.5 penalty-killing percentage, allowed the Capitals to convert three of eight power-play opportunities.
"(Especially) against that team, we can't take that many penalties," said Ilya Kovalchuk who had a goal and an assist Thursday.
With 11 goals and five assists in his last nine contests, Kovalchuk leads the Thrashers with 32 goals and 66 points. He's also fared well against the Hurricanes, totaling 27 goals and 49 points in 43 career games.
The Thrashers are set to open a four-game stretch at Philips Arena, where they're an NHL-worst 10-17-2. Carolina has won eight of its last 10 in Atlanta, splitting two visits in 2008-09.