Despite a favorable schedule down the stretch, the Carolina Hurricanes can't afford to take anything for granted.
Looking to bounce back from just their third defeat in 14 games, the Southeast Division-leading Hurricanes try for a fifth consecutive victory over the visiting Atlanta Thrashers on Friday night.
Carolina (41-30-6) lost 3-2 at home in a shootout to Washington on Tuesday to end its three-game winning streak. That loss and the Capitals' 4-3 overtime win at Tampa Bay on Thursday trimmed Carolina's division lead over Washington to two points with five games remaining.
The Hurricanes, third in the Eastern Conference, missed the playoffs last season after winning the Stanley Cup in 2005-06.
"We've really got to bear down here," Carolina goalie Cam Ward said. "We've done an excellent job to put ourselves in a good position here, but we don't want to let our foot off the gas. We want to continue to press and strive to win the division. To be able to do that, you've got to be able to bear down these last five games."
The Hurricanes, who have played one less game than Washington, visit the Capitals on Tuesday. That's the only one of its remaining contests in which Carolina will face a team currently in playoff position. Besides Atlanta (32-38-8) and two games versus Tampa Bay - both eliminated from playoff contention - the Hurricanes host Florida in their regular-season finale on April 4.
Though Carolina is 17-8-2 versus those division opponents, coach Peter Laviolette knows his club can't become complacent.
"I think there's a little bit of a catch to them," Laviolette told the team's official Web site. "They're still great hockey teams. If you don't prepare for that, they can be tricky."
Carolina is 5-1-1 against Atlanta in 2007-08 while outscoring the Thrashers 20-12 in winning the past four meetings.
|Atlanta Thrashers left winger Ilya Kovalchuk, right, needs just three more goals this season to establish a new career single-season high. (AP Photo/Gerry Broome)
Eric Staal has six goals and seven assists versus Atlanta this season, including three goals and two assists in his last two meetings against the Thrashers.
Erik Cole, who scored for the second time in three games Tuesday, has three goals and three assists against Atlanta in 2007-08.
Ward is likely to make his 16th consecutive start Friday after tying a career high with 42 saves versus Washington. Ward, 11-2-2 with a 2.27 goals-against average during his career-long starting streak, is 4-1-1 with a 3.14 GAA versus the Thrashers this season.
He made 31 saves in Carolina's 5-3 road win over Atlanta on March 19 in the teams' most recent meeting.
Atlanta snapped a five-game losing streak with a 3-2 win at Florida on Thursday night. Bobby Holik scored twice and Mark Recchi added the winner with 6:13 left in the third period for the Thrashers' third win in 18 games.
"If you're out of it, at least you go out there and play with pride," said Recchi, whose goal helped the Thrashers snap a 10-game road losing streak.
Ilya Kovalchuk, who is among the NHL leaders with 50 goals but has gone without one in two games, remains two shy of matching his career best set in 2005-06. He has three goals and eight assists versus the Hurricanes this season.