The suddenly surging Atlanta Thrashers look to take over sole possession of first place in the Southeast Division and continue their recent domination of the Florida Panthers when the teams meet in Atlanta.
The Thrashers (34-23-10) won their third straight game Sunday, a 3-1 victory over division rival Carolina on Sunday that moved them into a tie with Tampa Bay for the Southeast Division lead. Atlanta, which had dropped nine of 11 before the winning streak, moved five points ahead of the defending Stanley Cup champion Hurricanes.
"It feels good to be back in first place," said goalie Kari Lehtonen, who made 35 saves.
If recent history is any indication, the Thrashers have a good chance to keep their winning streak alive. Atlanta is 5-0-0 against the Panthers (27-26-13) this season and has won nine straight home meetings against them.
The Thrashers have not lost to the Panthers on home ice since Oct. 25, 2003, and are 15-2-1 in their last 18 meetings overall with Florida.
"They've got our number, there's no question about that," Panthers center Chris Gratton said after the most recent meeting, which Florida lost 3-1 at home Dec. 2.
However, the Panthers enter this contest playing their best hockey of 2006-07. They won their season-high fourth straight game Saturday, beating the Lightning 6-2 at home. They have earned at least one point in their last seven games, going 5-0-2 in that stretch.
Nathan Horton and Stephen Weiss each scored two goals Saturday. Panthers coach Jacques Martin, who placed Horton and Weiss together on a line with Martin Gelinas last month, has been pleased with the duo's play.
"Since I put them together, they've been good every night," Martin said. "Even if they haven't scored on certain nights, they have played against the opposition's best line and done a good job."
Gelinas, who had two assists for the fourth time in his last seven games, agreed.
"Stephen's been unbelievable. He's just been a pleasure to play with," Gelinas said. "He brings some great energy for all his teammates, and scoring scored some big goals. And with Nathan ... it's been a lot of fun."
Olli Jokinen, who was named one of the NHL's three stars of the week after picking up five goals last week, remained hot, scoring in his fourth straight contest.
For the Thrashers, Eric Belanger and Marian Hossa have each scored three goals during Atlanta's current three-game win streak. Hossa, who leads the team with 38 goals and 84 points, scored two of his goals in Sunday's victory.
"Now that we're winning again, we have to keep it up. It's been a rollercoaster," he said.
The Thrashers, who picked up Belanger in a trade with Nashville on Feb. 10, acquired defensemen Alexei Zhitnik from Philadelphia on Feb. 24 and forward Keith Tkachuk from St. Louis a day later to help during their stretch run. Zhitnik has two assists in three games since joining the Thrashers, while Tkachuk earned an assist Sunday for his first point with his new team.
"We're climbing the ladder," Tkachuk said. "You want to produce. I came here to win."