GAME: Atlanta Thrashers (16-16-6) at Buffalo Sabres (25-11-2).
TIME: Friday, 8 p.m. EST.
In the midst of the best stretch in franchise history, the Atlanta Thrashers will take a look at a big part of their future when they face the Buffalo Sabres.
Atlanta has managed at least a point in a club-record nine straight games (6-0-3), but will start rookie goaltender Kari Lehtonen Friday for the just the second time this season.
After taking more than two and a half months to recover from groin problems, Lehtonen is anxious to make his second start this season.
"It's going to be exciting like the first game of the season, almost," Lehtonen said. "Better late than never."
Lehtonen, who won all four of his starts with a 1.25 goals-against average during a late-season call-up in 2003-04, angered Atlanta coach Bob Hartley for being out of shape at the start of training camp. Not surprisingly, Lehtonen, the second overall pick in the 2002 draft, was injured in the first period of the Thrashers' 2-0 loss to Florida on Oct. 5.
Since then, Hartley has praised Lehtonen's work ethic in practice.
"He has the right mentality to be a goalie. Not too many things bother him," Hartley said, "The saves he makes in practice, it's unbelievable. He's out of position and suddenly, a big leg or big catching glove comes out of nowhere. He has a feel for the puck you can't teach."
Fellow rookie Michael Garnett played well in Lehtonen's place, making a franchise record-tying 16 straight starts as part of Atlanta's 6-0-3 run. He should see some action in the next week as Friday begins a stretch in which the Thrashers play five games in seven days.
Buffalo looks to rebound from Thursday's 4-3 shootout loss at Toronto.
Tim Connolly, Henrik Tallinder and Jason Pominville scored in regulation for Buffalo, which had won 17 of its previous 20 games and 10 of its last 11 on the road.
"The math has been really good for us until tonight," Buffalo coach Lindy Ruff said.
The Sabres failed to match a franchise record for wins in December (11) set in 1976.
Co-captain Daniel Briere continues to be out of the lineup for Buffalo. Briere will remain in Toronto on Friday to have his nagging abdominal injury re-evaluated. He has missed six straight games and 14 of the past 17.
STANDINGS: Thrashers - 38 points, 3rd place, 12 PB, Southeast Division. Sabres - 52 points, 2nd place, 3 PB, Northeast Division.
TEAM LEADERS: Thrashers - Ilya Kovalchuk, 23 goals; Marc Savard, 34 assists and 50 points; Savard and Andy Sutton, 62 PIM. Sabres - Ales Kotalik, 17 goals; Connolly and Teppo Numminen, 21 assists; Connolly, 29 points; Maxim Afinogenov, 40 PIM.
SPECIAL TEAMS: Thrashers - Power play: 20.9 percent (55 for 263), 4th. Penalty killing: 79.8 percent (197 for 247), 27th. Sabres - Power play: 22.1 percent (49 for 222), 3rd in NHL. Penalty killing: 84.1 percent (169 for 201), tied for 8th.
GOALTENDERS: Thrashers - Garnett (9-7-4, 2 SO, 3.42 GAA); Lehtonen (0-0-0, 0.00). Sabres - Martin Biron (15-5-2, 3.09); Ryan Miller (9-4-0, 2.50).
2003-04 SEASON SERIES: Thrashers, 2-1-1.
LAST MEETING: March 17, 2004; Sabres, 3-2, OT. At Atlanta, Derek Roy scored 15 seconds into overtime, completing the Sabres' rally from a two-goal deficit in the final 7:37 of the third period.
ROAD/HOME RECORDS: Thrashers - 7-9-2 on the road; Sabres - 12-5-1 at home.