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Sabres continue battle for first against Thrashers

by John McGourty
SABRES (36-21-10) at THRASHERS (28-29-11)

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

Season series -
- This is the fourth and final meeting of the teams. The Sabres have won twice, both times in overtime. Departed Ilya Kovalchuk's two goals propelled the Thrashers to a 4-2 win on Oct. 17 in Buffalo. Jochen Hecht scored twice and Derek Roy scored the winner in overtime in Buffalo on Jan. 1 in a 4-3 win. Roy scored again in overtime to give Buffalo a 2-1 win in Atlanta on Jan. 14.

Big story --
The Sabres are battling to hold onto first place in the Northeast Division. They hold a three-point lead over the Ottawa Senators. This is the second game of a five-game road trip. They lost the first game Saturday in overtime in Detroit. The Thrashers are also bidding for an Eastern Conference playoff spot. They held the eighth spot a week ago but their six-game losing streak has put them in 11th place, five points behind the eighth-place Boston Bruins.

Team Scope:

Sabres -- The Sabres have to come out with more fire at the start of the game. They gave up the first two goals to Minnesota Friday night and lost, 3-2, and they gave up the first two goals to Detroit on Saturday and lost, 3-2, in overtime. They also all have to bring their "A" game on the same night. Hecht got two goals Saturday in a loss. Thomas Vanek had two goals Friday in the loss. Tyler Myers had a goal and three assists in the win over Dallas. Ryan Miller is 3-1-1 since the Olympic break with a 2.20 goals-against average and .932 save percentage. He leads the NHL with a .931 save percentage for the season.
Thrashers --
The Thrashers have picked a bad time for a scoring drought. They have only eight goals in the six-game losing streak and lost three of those games by one goal. They have three starting defensemen injured and 48-year-old Chris Chelios playing in their stead. The Thrashers have given up a power-play goal in 10-straight games. Sunday's loss to the Coyotes in a shootout was tough. The Thrashers hit five posts in regulation. The Thrashers had the most favorable post-Olympic schedule of any team, nine of their first 11 at home and 11 of 14, but they have not capitalized on it yet.

Who's hot -- Atlanta's Nik Antropov has 15 points in 12 games. … Buffalo's Jason Pominville has four points in two games. Vanek has five points in five games. Roy has four points in four games.

Injury report --
Buffalo's right wing Drew Stafford has missed four games with a groin injury. ... Atlanta left wing Evander Kane may return at the end of the month after his broken foot heals. Defenseman Christoph Schubert has played only three games since Jan. 18 and is out until April with a hip injury. Defenseman Zach Bogosian is day-to-day with a hand injury. Defenseman Boris Valabik is out for the season with a knee injury.

Stat pack -- The Sabres have scored twice in their last 43 power plays. Buffalo is 24th on the power play but fourth-best at killing penalties. Atlanta is in the bottom third in both categories. Buffalo is better at 5-on-5 play. Only one team allows more shots per game than Atlanta, 33.2 per game. Only one team takes away more pucks than Atlanta. The Thrashers have a better winning percentage on faceoffs.

Puck Drop --
The race for the Calder Memorial Trophy seems to be a battle now between Colorado center Matt Duchene, who has 23 goals and 47 points and is plus-2, vs. Myers, who has 27 assists and 36 points, tied for second among rookies, and is plus-9. Myers leads all rookie defensemen with an average of 23:42 minutes played per game. Islanders left wing John Tavares is tied with Myers with 36 points but is minus-18. Philadelphia's James van Riemsdyk has only one assist in his last 11 games. Detroit goalie Jimmy Howard, with 26 wins and a .924 save percentage, also has a chance.

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