HURRICANES (14-27-7) at THRASHERS (22-20-7)
Last 10 -- Carolina 5-5-0; Atlanta 4-3-3
Season series -- This is the third of six meetings. On Nov. 27, Rich Peverley scored the fourth of Atlanta's five third-period goals with 6:03 remaining to help the Thrashers rally for a 6-4 road win. On Jan. 16, the Thrashers held a 3-1 lead at the start of the third period but the Canes battled back to tie the score on goals 70 seconds apart by Jussi Jokinen, his second of the game, and Ray Whitney. Kovalchuk put Atlanta ahead for good with a little over 10 minutes remaining in regulation, and the Thrashers won 5-3.
Big story -- The Thrashers find themselves on the cusp of a playoff berth, which would be only the second in franchise history. Atlanta is among the League leaders with 149 total goals and 3.04 goals per game (both sixth), but has been held back by subpar defense and inconsistent goaltending from veteran Johan Hedberg and youngster Ondrej Pavelec. Word is, Kari Lehtonen, working his way back from two back surgeries, is doing well in his rehab and getting close to returning. It would be a huge boost to Atlanta's playoff push.
Hurricanes -- Carolina is beginning a two-game road trip that will take the 'Canes to Philadelphia on Thursday. They are coming off a 3-2 loss at TampaBay on Monday.
Forwards Chad LaRose and Sergei Samsonov returned on Monday to spark the Hurricanes, but their presence was not enough. Carolina twice battled back from a one-goal deficit to tie the score. "It was good, but it's all about winning on this team, two points, and the job didn't get done, and that's our fault as a team," LaRose said.
Steve Downie scored the go-ahead goal midway through the third period to give TampaBay its first win in North Carolina since November 2007.
Matt Cullen had a goal in the second period for the Hurricanes, and LaRose scored in the third in his first game back from a lower-body injury that had sidelined him for 17 games.
Thrashers -- Atlanta is wrapping up a two-game homestand that began with a 4-3 victory against Toronto on Tuesday. After trailing by two goals, the Thrashers stormed back to defeat Toronto. Pavelec turned aside 37 shots to earn his 12th victory of the season.
"Pavelec made some unbelievable saves and the penalty kill stopped them in the final minute," Kovalchuk said. "It was a team effort. If we work like we did tonight, we're going to win a lot of games."
Kovalchuk scored two goals for the first time since Nov. 13, giving him 30 for the season. He took a season-high eight shots against the Maple Leafs. "That was the best game I've seen Kovy play in two weeks," coach John Anderson said. "I guess he felt good. He always plays good, but that was something special."
Who's hot -- For the Hurricanes, Jokinen has 2 goals and 3 assists in four games, Ray Whitney has 4 goals and 3 assists in six games, new captain Eric Staal has 2 goals and 3 assists in five games, Brandon Sutter has a goal and 2 assists in five games, and Jiri Tlusty has 3 assists in five games. For the Thrashers, Tobias Enstrom has a goal and 3 assists in five games, Kovalchuk has 5 goals and 4 assists in four games, and Vyacheslav Kozlov has 4 assists in four games.
Injury report -- For the Hurricanes, Casey Borer (neck), Joe Corvo (leg) and Scott Walker (shoulder) are on injured reserve, and Tuomo Ruutu (upper-body) and Erik Cole (upper-body) are day-to-day. For the Thrashers, Lehtonen (back) is on injured reserve, and Todd White (knee) and Mark Popovic (broken foot) are day-to-day.
Stat pack -- With 129 wins, Hurricanes goaltender Cam Ward is one win shy of tying the franchise record, held by Arturs Irbe with 30). … Kovalchuk is third in the NHL with 10 power-play goals and tied for fourth in overall goals (30). … Enstrom ranks third among NHL defensemen with 34 assists. His next assist will break his own single-season team record for assists by a defenseman. … Since 2001-02, Kovalchuk leads all NHL players with 327 goals.
Puck drop -- "Before the Olympics, we have to be in the playoffs. We have a lot of home games in March. It's a good schedule for us, so we have to hang in there before the Olympics." -- Ilya Kovalchuk