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Thrashers continue playoff push against Blackhawks

by David Kalan
THRASHERS (26-24-9) at BLACKHAWKS (39-15-5)

Last 10 -- Atlanta 4-4-2; Chicago 5-4-1

Season series -- This will be the only meeting of the season between Atlanta and Chicago. The Hawks took the only matchup a season ago, a 3-1 win at Philips Arena on Feb. 11, 2009.

Big story -- As the Thrashers make a late run at a postseason berth, they can pick up a big win if they take two points away from the intimidating United Center.

Team Scope:

Thrashers --
After dealing the biggest star in its history last week, Atlanta initially struggled, but the Thrashers have slowly turned the tide back. After getting beat up by the streaking Capitals in their first game of the post-Ilya Kovalchuk era, the Birds haven't lost in regulation in three games, including wins over Florida and Minnesota. Eager to prove the Thrashers weren't losers in the five-player deal that sent Kovalchuk to New Jersey, winger Niclas Bergfors has tallied three goals and an assist since arriving in Atlanta. Bergfors' last goal would be the game-winner Friday against the Wild, while Johnny Oduya, also acquired in the trade, made a key block in the game's closing moments.

The task for Atlanta now becomes seizing its recent momentum and taking a run at the postseason. This won't be easy against the Hawks, particularly if Johan Hedberg is allowed to rest. While the netminder has only lost once in regulation in his last seven starts, he may sit with the Thrashers playing consecutive nights.
Blackhawks --
After suffering a three-game losing streak, Chicago has rebounded to win its last two outings, but the Hawks are still struggling, not having won consecutive games since Jan. 16. Perhaps in an attempt to jolt the team, the Hawks made changes to their blue line on Friday, sending former first-round pick Cam Barker to Minnesota in exchange for defenseman Kim Johnsson and the Wild's first-round pick in the 2009 Draft, Nick Leddy. While Leddy was considered a top prospect he has had a disappointing year at the University of Minnesota. Johnsson is expected to be in the lineup Saturday.

The Hawks have not been barren offensively -- Patrick Kane has 12 points in his last 12 games -- but the turnaround may be coming from between the pipes, where Antti Niemi has picked up the last two wins. Coach Joel Quenneville announced Friday that Niemi would make his third consecutive start Saturday, and if the young Finn, who is 15-4-1 with a 1.98 goals-against average, can continue his pleasantly surprising 2009-10 campaign, the Hawks' fortunes may go with him.

Who's hot -- Marian Hossa has tallied 20 points over the last 19 games for Chicago, while Atlanta's Nik Antropov has six points in the last three games.

Injury report --
Atlanta will be without Boris Valabik, who had season-ending surgery on his left knee this week. The Thrashers may also be without Mark Popovic, who was sidelined Friday against Minnesota. … John Madden is doubtful for Chicago with a lower-body injury, while Ben Eager has already been ruled out, also with a lower-body injury.

Stat pack --
While Chicago no doubt thinks it added veteran experience with the acquisition of Johnsson, as well as potential future benefit in the form of Leddy, there is plenty of evidence that the move is purely a salary cap-related decision. Johnsson and Barker each had 14 points on the season.

Puck drop -- While Chicago is certainly considered the more talented squad, Atlanta has stayed above its premature obituaries following the Kovalchuk trade a week ago. A win over the Blackhawks could show the Thrashers' recent play is no fluke and that a run at the East's top eight is in the offing.

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