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Game Day: Thrashers at Panthers, 7:30 PM

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Atl_medium
Fla_medium
v.
Atlanta Thrashers Florida Panthers
BankAtlantic Center
7:30PM
TV: SportSouth Radio: 680 the FAN
SBNation: Game Page, Litter Box Cats
TSN Coverage
Johan Hedberg
Tomas Vokoun
(10-7-3, .911% 2.68) (15-14-8, .926% 2.57)

Tonight the Thrashers visit the Panthers in Sunrise, FL. The teams have met three times this season with each game decided by a single goal. Atlanta has won once at home and once in Florida, while Florida won a game at home back in December. Here's the quick stats breakdown from NHL.com:

STATS
47 GP 48
21 W 20
19 L 20
7 OT 8
49 P 48
0.521 P% 0.500
3.08 G/G 2.81
3.23 GA/G 2.98
19.3 PP% 17.6
79.8 PK% 79.9
29.3 S/G 28.8
33.8 SA/G 34.6
51.3 FO% 50.6
The two teams are pretty evenly matched. Of course, the Thrashers are coming off of a terrible month of December. January has been better: 3-2-3 with strong performances against some solid teams. (We're just going to pretend that Washington game never happened.) The Thrashers are now sitting two games above 0.500 which puts them right on the playoff bubble in the "real" standings:

Rank Team PPG/From 500
1 Devils 1.41 +19
2 Sabres 1.39 +18
3 Capitals 1.38 +18
4 Penguins 1.22 +11
5 Bruins 1.15 +7
6 Rangers 1.08 +4
7 Senators 1.06 +3
8 Flyers 1.04 +2
9 Thrashers 1.04 +2
10 Islanders 1.04 +2
11 Canadiens 1.00 EVEN
12 Panthers 1.00 EVEN
13 Lightning 0.98 -1
14 Leafs 0.84 -8
15 Hurricanes 0.74 -12

It's pretty clear: a short winning streak (and some luck) could put the Thrashres in 6th place, but another losing streak could drop them down to 13th. The East is very, very tight around the playoff bubble, and sadly, that's not likely to change much before the end of the season. There's typically a handful of teams competing for the last 2 or 3 spots, and with teams picking up garbage points (OTLs) like Tiger Woods picks up the ladies. Time for game notes!

Panthers Game Notes

This time, the Panthers will be without center Stephen Weiss. Weiss has 3 goals and 2 assists in 3 games against the Thrashers this year. That's somewhat remarkable, as Florida has scored just 8 times against Atlanta. This might be the Thrashers' new "Vinny Prospal." Thank God he can't be the new Nittymaki...

The Panthers have been playing better as of late, getting points in their last 4 (3-0-1) with a 23% PP and 90% PK over that stretch. Of course, Tomas Vokoun has been at the bad end of a shooting gallery as well: over the last 8 games, the Panthers have given up over 40 shots on 3 occasions (49, 48, 42) and nearly that on two more (39, 37).

The Panthers have had some troubles in overtime as well, going 1-2 in the 5 minute period and 1-4 in the shootout. With the Eastern Conference so tight, it must be frustrating for Panthers fans to see so many extra points left on the table.

Thrashers Game Notes

The Thashers look like they may be without 3rd-pairing defenseman Christoph Schubert tonight. With Mark Popovic still on the mend, it's a safe assumption that the bottom pairing will be Boris Valabik and Anssi Salmela. Boris has been playing very, very well since returning from injury and Salmela has played a more physical game in an effort to stay in the lineup.

The forward lines have performed pretty well since the shake-up after the Capitals game. It's seemed to pay off: though the Thrashers mustered just one goal against the Sabres, they scored 6 against the Ottawa Senators and 5 against the Carolina Hurricanes. We've seen some unlikely goal-scorers over this period: Eric Boulton had a power play goal, Jim Slater netted another, and Todd White got one as well. Ilya Kovalchuk also has goals in 3 straight, though he certainly doesn't count as an "unlikely" scorer.

Important as well has been the return of scoring from defensemen: we've got three goals from D-men in the past 3 games. At the beginning of the season, this was a trend, but December was a very rough month: just 3 goals in 15 games.

Tonight's Three Questions of the Game:

  1. Can Special Teams Get Back on Track? The Thrashers have played well over the past three games, but special teams have suffered. The Power Play has sputtered at 13% and the Penalty Kill has run at 77%. The Panthers are not exactly a special teams powerhouse, so the Thrashers have a good opportunity to turn this ship around.
  2. Can the Forward Lines Continue to Thrive? All four forward lines have been solid since the shakeup. The Thrashers have outscored the opposition 9-3... and that's not counting Antropov's even-strength empty-net goal to seal the victory against the Hurricanes. If you're outscoring your opponents 3-to-1 at even-strength, you're going to win a LOT of games.
  3. Can the Thrashers Win Another in Regulation? The big story of December was the utter lack of regulation-time wins. There were none. Zero. Giving up that extra point to conference opponents could come back to haunt the Thrashers at the end of the season. If the Thrashers can close out another game in 60, they'll be taking another small step toward a playoff berth.

That's it from me. Game predictions?