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Thrashers-Panthers Preview @NHLdotcom

The Atlanta Thrashers are closing in on the first playoff berth in franchise history. A good showing in their final six games also could give them the Southeast Division title.

The Thrashers hope to rebound from consecutive losses and extend their slim Southeast lead on Wednesday night when they visit the Florida Panthers.

Florida helped Atlanta (39-27-10) on Tuesday by beating Tampa Bay 5-2. That kept the Thrashers two points ahead of the Lightning in the race for the division title with the teams scheduled to meet April 7 in the regular-season finale.

This game begins a stretch where Atlanta plays three games in four days - two against teams with little chance at the playoffs.

The Thrashers will need to bounce back to avoid their third straight loss. Pittsburgh rookie Jordan Staal scored a fluke goal late in the third period Saturday, sending the Thrashers to a 2-1 defeat.

"I wouldn't change anything that I did," said Thrashers goaltender Kari Lehtonen. "It was just tremendously bad luck, and it costs us a lot. I'm sad. I think I was able to make some good saves today but then a puck goes in like that and we go home with zero points. That's the bottom line."

It was the seventh loss in 10 road games for Atlanta, which is two points shy of matching last season's franchise record of 90.

Although he has lost his last two starts, Lehtonen is expected to be in net for this game. He is 6-1-0 with a 1.58 goals-against average and two shutouts this season against Florida (32-30-14). Backup Johan Hedberg is likely to start Thursday's game against Toronto.

The Thrashers won the first six meetings between the teams this season before the Panthers' 3-2 home victory on March 10. Atlanta is 11-3-1 in the series since the start of last season.

Star forwards Marian Hossa and Ilya Kovalchuk have been the scoring stars against Florida this season. Kovalchuk has seven goals and four assists in seven games while Hossa has seven goals and three assists.

Nathan Horton scored twice and captain Olli Jokinen had a goal and two assists Tuesday for the Panthers, who improved to 3-1-1 in their last five games. Florida, though, remained eight points behind the final playoff spot in the Eastern Conference with six games remaining.

"We've got seven games left and we are going to chip away and try to win all seven and sneak into the playoffs," center Stephen Weiss said on the Panthers' official Web site. "We're not giving up and if that means playing the spoiler role and knocking someone out of the playoffs then that's what it's going to be."

Jokinen, who has six goals and seven assists in his past five games, moved into a tie with Pavel Bure for second place in Panthers' history with his 152nd goal. Current Thrasher Scott Mellanby holds the record with 157 goals.

Weiss's second-period goal was Florida's first on the power play in nine contests and ended an 0-for-25 drought.

Ed Belfour made 27 saves in his 27th consecutive start, extending his own franchise record. Belfour, who turns 42 in April, is 1-3-0 with a 3.46 GAA in five appearances this season against Atlanta.

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