The playoff-hopeful Atlanta Thrashers will try to take advantage of a big opportunity when they visit the Buffalo Sabres tonight at HSBC Arena for a game loaded with postseason implications.
The Sabres have 76 points and are currently tied with Carolina for the final playoff berth in the Eastern Conference. Atlanta, meanwhile, is four points behind Buffalo and Carolina and tied with Toronto for the East's 10th spot.
Atlanta has lost two of three against Buffalo this season and four of six overall in the series, but the Thrashers still have eight wins over the last 12 meetings between the clubs. The Sabres have taken five of the last eight encounters in Buffalo.
The Thrashers have won two of their last three games and Craig Ramsay's club is 4-1-1 over its last six outings. Atlanta hosted the Philadelphia Flyers on Thursday and recorded a shootout victory over the Eastern Conference leaders.
Blake Wheeler netted the decider in the third round of the shootout to lift the Thrashers to the 4-3 victory against the Flyers. Rob Schremp tallied to start the second round, but it was Wheeler's odd tally which eventually ended the contest after a Danny Briere miss.
Wheeler skated in from an angle just to the right of center ice, then lost control of the puck as he neared the crease. Brian Boucher failed to follow the play, and Wheeler was able to regain control and slide the shot home.
Tim Stapleton, Bryan Little and Nik Antropov tallied for the Thrashers, who topped the Flyers for the second time in five days. Philadelphia was able to salvage a point Thursday thanks to Briere's game-tying goal with 1:28 left in regulation.
Ondrej Pavelec made 21 stops for the victory and Atlanta's No. 1 netminder spoke after the game about the importance of every game down the stretch.
"The rest of the season is gonna be playoff-style hockey," said the Atlanta netminder. "All huge games for us. Now we go to Buffalo for another big game, another battle. Our guys had some great moves in the shootout, and made it easier for me to stop one puck. Big win for us."
Pavelec faced Buffalo once this season and yielded four goals on 39 shots in that loss on Feb. 23 at HSBC Arena.
The Thrashers are 14-15-5 as the visiting team this season. After tonight, Atlanta won't play again until Thursday's road game against the New York Islanders.
Buffalo has lost two of its last three games and the Sabres were last in action on Tuesday when they were dealt a 1-0 shutout loss by visiting Carolina. Brandon Sutter scored the lone goal of the contest and Cam Ward frustrated the Sabres' offense by turning aside all 40 shots sent his way.
The Sabres came out firing on Tuesday, outshooting the Hurricanes 22-13 in the opening period, but Ward showed he was up to the challenge.
"We had good chances," said Buffalo head coach Lindy Ruff. "That first period, there were plenty of opportunities."
Ryan Miller was the hard-luck loser, stopping 32 shots for Buffalo. With the Sabres also playing tomorrow against Nashville, it's unclear if Miller will get both starts or if backup Jhonas Enroth will see action in one of those games.
Miller is 10-2-5 with a 2.53 goals-against average in his career against Atlanta.
Sabres forward Jochen Hecht missed the last game with an upper-body injury and is questionable for tonight's tilt. Fellow forward Patrick Kaleta has missed the last five games with a bone bruise in his left knee and is day-to-day.
Buffalo, which will complete its four-game homestand tomorrow against the Predators, is 15-16-3 as the host this season.