Although there are more than two months left in the regular season, the Atlanta Thrashers know the first playoff berth in franchise history is drawing closer.
The Thrashers look to extend their lead in the Southeast Division on Thursday when they face the New York Islanders at Philips Arena for the second time in a week.
Atlanta (29-16-8) is tied with New Jersey for second place in the Eastern Conference and is eight points ahead of Carolina in the Southeast with 29 games remaining. Barring a late-season collapse, the Thrashers should reach the postseason for the first time in their seven-year history and improve their point total for the fourth consecutive season.
"We can't deny that the countdown is on," Thrashers coach Bob Hartley said. "We have to focus; getting points every game should be our goal. You look at the jam in the seventh, eight, ninth, 10th spots, you don't want to get in that mess because it's going to get muddy."
Marian Hossa scored the decisive goal and Kari Lehtonen outdueled Martin Brodeur in the shootout, lifting the Thrashers to a 5-4 victory Tuesday over the Devils.
Ilya Kovalchuk had two goals and Slava Kozlov added three assists for Atlanta, which has won five of seven. The Thrashers, however, needed a win Tuesday to salvage a 6-5-2 record for January.
Three of Atlanta's four goals in regulation came on the power play after it went 3-for-45 on the man advantage in the previous eight games.
"That's what coach said before the game, be ready for changes," Kovalchuk said. "Our power play didn't work. It works now."
Kovalchuk, who was left off the All-Star team, has goals in four straight games and has totaled six in that span. He scored his second goal of the game with 2:01 left in overtime in Atlanta's 5-4 victory over the visiting Islanders on Friday.
While Atlanta is focused on a division title, the Islanders (23-21-6) are scrambling to stay in the playoff race. They are 11th in the East, four points behind the final spot with six of their next seven games on the road.
New York responded well to a difficult stretch of games after the All-Star break, gaining four of a possible six points against Atlanta, Buffalo and Detroit.
Despite that success, the Islanders should have come away with five points in that span, but blew a three-goal lead in the third period Tuesday in a 4-3 overtime loss to the Red Wings.
"That's a point we hope doesn't cost us down the road," Islanders goalie Rick DiPietro said. "Those (first) two periods were something to build on. We didn't forecheck hard in the third period."
Although the Isles have points in four straight (2-0-2), they finished 4-6-3 in January. They haven't won more than two in a row since a season-high three-game streak from Nov. 22-25.
DiPietro hopes for a better performance Thursday after he lasted less than six minutes Friday against the Thrashers. He allowed three goals in the first 5:35 before he was replaced by Mike Dunham.
Atlanta has won two of three against New York this season. DiPietro stopped 37 shots in the Islanders' 6-0 victory at Nassau Coliseum on Dec. 16.