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Panthers, Thrashers want to continue resurgences

by Matthew Mankiewich
THRASHERS (21-19-7) at PANTHERS (20-20-8)

Last 10 -- Atlanta 3-4-3; Florida 4-5-1

Season series --
The Southeast Division rivals have had three matchups so far, the first two taken by the Thrashers, and in all three cases the Panthers had third-period leads. On Dec. 16, the Panthers opened up a 3-0 lead but the Thrashers came back with three unanswered goals to draw even. Michael Frolik saved the day with 1:21 left in regulation and the Panthers won 4-3.

Big story --
There's been a logjam in the Eastern Conference and the Southeast Division all season and these two teams are right in the thick of it despite various setbacks. One point separates the Thrashers and Panthers in 11th and 12th place, respectively, but even the Panthers are a mere six points behind fifth-seeded Boston and only two down on the Islanders and Canadiens, tied for eighth. Each is looking to make up ground at the expense of the other.

Team scope:

Thrashers --
The nine-game losing streak is behind them. After a disastrous seven-game road trip without a win, they're 3-1-1 including wins over the Rangers, Senators and Hurricanes.

The Senators game was an eye-opener because the 6-1 win was their first in regulation since Nov. 30 and their first in a long time in which so many aspects of their game worked well.

"I think it all came together," forward Eric Boulton said.  "We had some new line combinations that seemed to work pretty good. Keeping it simple and getting lots of shots on net was the main thing."

Panthers --
Coming on the heels of a blown three-goal lead and shootout loss to the Capitals, a home-and-home sweep of the Lightning was particularly sweet, especially for Cory Stillman, Rostislav Olesz and Tomas Vokoun.

Stillman and Olesz scored in the 3-2 win in Tampa and added a pair each in a 5-2 win in Sunrise, while Vokoun turned back 47 shots in the second game.

"We had a real gritty one the other night in Tampa," defenseman Keith Ballard said after Saturday's win. "Tonight we were opportunistic and Vokoun played awesome. In the third period we gave up a lot of shots and he was there kicking rebounds away and making saves."

Who's hot --
Despite the "will he sign or won't he?" talk surrounding him all season, captain Ilya Kovalchuk continues to the be the go-to guy on his team, his game-winner against the Hurricanes on Saturday saving the day after the Thrashers blew a two-goal lead. He has 16 multi-point games and six points (3 goals, 3 assists) in his last three.

Stillman has six points in four games for the Panthers, Olesz has five. Vokoun is 3-0-1 in his last five starts.

Injury report --
Panthers forward Stephen Weiss left Saturday's game with a nagging lower-body injury, but coach Pete DeBoer expects him to be ready to play. … On the Atlanta side, Mark Popovic (foot) and Kari Lehtonen (back) participated in an optional practice on Sunday. Coach John Anderson stated the reason Todd White (leg) has been scratched lately had more to do with the play of the current lineup than his injury.

Stat pack --
The 5-on-3 situation that led to the Hurricanes tying Saturday's game exposed a less-than-desirable trend. Atlanta has been down two men on 11 different occasions for a combined 12:25 in ice time. Opponents have scored four times.

Puck drop -- It's a time of year when the schedule turns homeward and a lot of intra-conference and intra-divisional games are on the docket, presenting prime opportunities to gain ground … or lose it.

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