At the end of a road trip that has taken them to the rinks of the three of the NHL’s best defensive teams, the Carolina Hurricanes are hoping things will be a bit easier against the league’s most porous club.
Carolina will try to salvage a .500 trip when it visits the Atlanta Thrashers on Friday, when the Southeast Division rivals face off in the first of two meetings in the final week of 2008.
The Hurricanes (16-14-5) had gone six straight games without a regulation loss (3-0-3) before their current trip, which started with a 4-2 defeat against Eastern Conference-leading Boston last Saturday. The Bruins allow an NHL-low 2.15 goals per game.
The next night, Carolina earned a 3-2 win at Montreal, which ranks fifth in the league in team goals-against average. Minnesota, which beat the Hurricanes 3-2 on Tuesday, ranks second.
Coach Paul Maurice’s club led the Wild 2-0 early in the second period, but three straight Minnesota goals sunk Carolina.
“We made two or three … mistakes with the puck,” Maurice said. “Going in, I wouldn’t have traded our chances for theirs. I thought that what we played a solid game. I thought their goaltender (Niklas Backstrom) made the difference.”
Ray Whitney and Rod Brind’Amour each had a goal and an assist for the Hurricanes, who outshot Minnesota 37-23, but scored two or fewer goals for the 22nd time this season. They are 5-14-3 when that happens.
They’re hoping it won’t occur against the Thrashers (12-18-4), who are last in the league with a 3.68 team GAA. Atlanta’s only four wins in its last 14 games have come against the New York Islanders, Ottawa and Tampa Bay - the teams that rank 28th, 29th and 30th in the NHL in goals per game, respectively.
One of those victories came on Tuesday, when Johan Hedberg made 23 saves in the Thrashers’ 4-2 win over the Islanders. Bryan Little scored twice for Atlanta, including the game-winner on the power play midway through the third period.
Ilya Kovalchuk added a pair of assists, giving him 501 points in 500 career games. In previous years, Kovalchuk has been more of a goal-scorer, but this season he has 11 goals and 24 assists through 34 games.
“It’s always good when you win,” Kovalchuk said. “… This year, I don’t find the back of the net as much, but we have guys in front of the net to put the puck in.”
The bigger issue for the Thrashers is keeping opponents from doing the same. Goalie Kari Lehtonen was recently activated after nearly two months on injured reserve, but he hasn’t helped much, allowing eight goals in two starts. Lehtonen is 3-9-1 with a 3.87 GAA in his career against Carolina.
Hedberg has been better, winning six of his last eight against the Hurricanes, with a 2.73 GAA. He was in net for both of the teams’ meetings this season - a pair of Thrashers wins in the first two weeks of November.
Atlanta is just 1-6-2 in its last nine home games, however, since beating Carolina 3-2 on Nov. 14.
The clubs will also meet on New Year’s Eve in Raleigh, where the Thrashers won 5-2 on Nov. 9. Carolina had won five straight against Atlanta coming into this season.