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Improving Panthers host resurgent Thrashers

by Matthew Mankiewich /
THRASHERS (21-15-6) at PANTHERS (18-17-2)

TV -- FS-South (HD), FS-Florida (HD)

Last 10 --
Atlanta 4-4-2; Florida 5-3-2

Season series --
They've already split the first pair, the visiting team the victor in both. Over the last two seasons, the series has gone both ways, the Panthers taking four of six in 2008-09, the Thrashers doing likewise in 2009-10.

Big story -- Both teams are improved over last year, the Thrashers making the bigger jump to sixth in the Eastern Conference while the Panthers start 2011 with more wins than regulation losses for the first time since last February. They're seven points behind eighth-seeded Montreal and are trying to put a run together, going 3-0-2 in their last five.

Team scope:

Thrashers -- They're a game past the halfway point of the season a little bit ahead of most teams; only the Ducks have matched the Thrash's 42 games played to date. The NHL schedule makers try to be fair, and while the Thrashers played 41 games in 85 days in the first half, the next 41 are spread out over 100 days.

What's most important at this point is the 48 points they've picked up. Last year it took five more games to reach the same total. The difference? He wears No. 33. Since being acquired from the Blackhawks after helping spur their Stanley Cup run, Dustin Byfuglien has transformed the Thrashers while experiencing a major breakout of his own. His 41 points so far are tops among NHL defensemen and he has five more points halfway through this season than he ever had before in a full campaign. He has five goals in his last seven games and six game-winners on the season (tied for the NHL lead) -- three of those in overtime, most recently in Montreal on Sunday, a 4-3 Thrashers win.

"I just bury the head, aim for the back of the net and hope it goes in," Byfuglien said.

Panthers -- By contrast to Atlanta, the Panthers join the Islanders as the two teams that have played the fewest games to date at 37, five fewer than the Thrashers. The result will be a more compressed schedule the rest of the way, including the stretch they're on now, which squeezes five games into seven days. They've won the first two, including gutting one out on Monday against the Hurricanes.

Every team has a "house of horrors," an away venue where they have difficulty winning, and for the Cats, it's the RBC Center in Raleigh, where they entered the game 5-25-2. So when the Hurricanes roared back from 3-1 down, there was plenty of reason to believe it was deja vu all over again.

Bryan Allen fixed all that with a goal 1:16 into overtime and the Panthers skipped town with a rare 4-3 win.

"You could see we hit the wall there in the third period a little bit," coach Pete DeBoer said. "But we found a way to win, and that's the big thing."

Who's hot -- It's not just Byfuglien in Atlanta getting it done from the blue line. Defense partner Tobias Enstrom leads NHL blueliners in assists with 27 and is third in points with 34. Ondrej Pavelec made 32 saves in his last meeting with the Panthers on Nov. 17, a 2-1 loss that dropped his record to 1-4-2. He's gone 13-4-2 since, stopped 47 shots in Sunday's win and is third in the NHL going into Tuesday's action with a 2.14 goals-against average. … Florida's Chris Higgins has been kick-starting the Cats' surge with 4 goals and 1 assist in his last five games.

Injury report -- Thrashers forward Jim Slater (concussion) did not play Sunday in Montreal, while Ben Eager (lower body) also sat out for the second straight game. … Panthers forward Byron Bitz is back skating after sports hernia surgery, but there is no timetable on a return.

Stat pack --
Pavelec's 14th win of the season in Montreal ties a career high, but it was achieved in 27 games as opposed to 42 last season. … The Thrashers are tied for third in the NHL with 129 goals scored, and have five players with 10 or more. … In addition to Byfuglien's career year so far, Anthony Stewart has reached a career high in both goals (10) and assists (14). Evander Kane's 13 assists are a career high as well. … Magnifying the efforts of Atlanta goaltending are its shots-against numbers, second in the NHL with 1,447, along with being outshot in 27 of 42 games this season. They've allowed 40 or more in a game 11 times, and broke the 50 mark twice.

Puck drop -- "We were wondering when the last time the Florida Panthers were above .500. It's good. We've got to keep chipping away." -- Allen, after his overtime goal beat the Hurricanes and put the team at 18-17-2

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