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Islanders-Thrashers Preview @NHL

The Atlanta Thrashers are more than halfway to the first playoff appearance in franchise history.

Atlanta looks to strengthen its grip on the top spot in the Southeast Division on Friday when it hosts the New York Islanders.

Success was hard to come by during the Thrashers' first three seasons in the NHL, with 60 points in 2000-01 being their highest total in that span. Things began to improve for the franchise when Bob Hartley became coach on Jan. 14, 2003.

Atlanta (27-15-8) improved by 20 points in Hartley's first season with the team, then jumped to 78 in 2003-04 before setting franchise records with 41 wins and 90 points last season.

Barring a second-half collapse, the Thrashers should earn the first playoff berth in the franchise's seven-year history. The only teams in the Eastern Conference with more points are Buffalo (70) and New Jersey (63).

The team could also claim its first division title, currently sitting six points ahead of defending champion Carolina.

"I don't think there is a big concern about us getting soft," captain Scott Mellanby said. "I think our attitude is good and I don't think it's anything we have to worry about any more than any other team."

Atlanta headed into the All-Star break with a 3-1 victory Saturday over the New York Rangers, its third win in four games.

Defenseman Niclas Havelid snapped a tie 4:09 into the third period for the Thrashers, whose 15 road wins ties them for second-most in the East.

"I have no interest in finding out (why) as long as it keeps going," Hartley said. "If you look at our road record, it's all about the commitment our players are putting in. We're not an easy team to play against."

One of the biggest reasons for Atlanta's success is the potent combination of forwards Marian Hossa and Ilya Kovalchuk.

Hossa, who had four assists in Wednesday's All-Star Game, is tied for the NHL lead with 30 goals and is sixth with 63 points. Kovalchuk, who scored a career-high 52 goals last season, is among the league leaders with 24 goals and 50 points.

The Islanders (22-21-4) are one of several teams hoping a strong second half will be enough to get them into the postseason. They were one of the league's early surprises, but a recent 2-9-1 stretch dropped them into 12th place in the East.

New York also went into the break with a victory, scoring twice in the third period en route to a 4-2 win at Philadelphia on Jan. 18.

"Right from the start of the game, guys knew what was at stake here," center Mike Sillinger said. "Let's face it, our last games haven't been the greatest. It's time to bear down. It's going to be a fight for the playoffs right to the end."

The strong play of captain Alexei Yashin was one reason the Islanders were atop the Atlantic Division for a short time earlier this season, but a knee injury forced him to miss nearly a month and he hasn't been nearly as sharp lately.

Yashin has one goal and two assists in his last 12 games after recording at least one point in each of his previous 10 contests.

Facing the Thrashers, however, could be just what Yashin needs. He has six goals and six assists during an eight-game point streak against them.

These teams have split two meetings this season at Nassau Coliseum. The Islanders have won six of eight overall against the Thrashers, and are 4-1 with one tie in their last six visits to Atlanta.

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