There are still more than two months left in the regular season, but the Carolina Hurricanes are approaching every game like a must-win.
The Hurricanes look to build off their latest victory when they host the lowly Atlanta Thrashers on Saturday.
Carolina (24-21-5), which hasn't been to the playoffs since winning the Stanley Cup in 2006, is within one point of eighth place in the Eastern Conference following Thursday's 3-2 win over Tampa Bay. It finished two points out of the final playoff spot last season.
"We talked about it before the game, (that) this is a huge 30-something games for us," said Eric Staal, who scored the game-winner with 1:36 to play Thursday. "We've got to win. ... We've got to bring our consistent work ethic and effort every night."
The Hurricanes have won three of their last four games following a season-high five-game losing streak.
Goaltender Cam Ward had another stellar outing on Thursday, as he stopped 27 shots - including all 22 he faced in the final two periods - to earn his 100th NHL victory.
"Obviously, Cam was big," Staal said. "We're going to need him to be the rest of the way."
Ward has made 15 straight starts for Carolina. He has a 1.50 goals-against average and one shutout in his last four games after posting a 4.42 GAA in the previous five.
The 2006 Conn Smythe Trophy winner has been in net for all four games against the Thrashers (17-28-5) this season. Ward has a 3.27 GAA in those contests with Carolina winning the last two after Atlanta won the first two.
Staal, who leads the Hurricanes with 21 goals, had a hat trick in Carolina's 5-4 victory at Atlanta on Dec. 26 and assisted on one of Sergei Samsonov's two goals in a 3-1 home win over the Thrashers five days later.
The Thrashers are coming off Thursday's 5-4 loss to the New York Islanders, their third defeat in a row.
Atlanta, which has the second-worst record in the league, scored four goals in the third period, but it wasn't enough to overcome the Islanders' four-goal first-period.
"Just because we had a good third doesn't mean anything," said center Rich Peverley, who had a goal and two assists. "We didn't get a point out of it. You shoot yourself in the foot going down 4-0. I think it was a lack of effort by the whole team."
The Thrashers have scored seven goals during their three-game skid after totaling 15 in winning their previous three.
Goalie Johan Hedberg stopped 17 of 18 shots in 45 minutes on Thursday after Kari Lehtonen was pulled.
Hedberg is 0-2-1 with a 4.37 GAA in his last five games, but is 2-1-0 with a 3.02 GAA against the Hurricanes this season.