A season that had the potential to be over very quickly for the Atlanta Thrashers now holds the possibility of a second straight division title.
The Thrashers look to beat the Montreal Canadiens three times in a season for the first time when the teams meet Thursday night at Philips Arena.
A first-round sweep at the hands of the New York Rangers last season and six straight losses to open 2007-08 prompted Thrashers general manager Don Waddell to fire coach Bob Hartley on Oct. 17.
Waddell took over behind the bench on an interim basis while he searched for a new head coach. The Thrashers, though, responded to his leadership with an 11-4-0 record, leaving Waddell little choice but to remain the team's head coach for the rest of the season.
Although Atlanta (23-22-2) has cooled off since that surge, playing in the mediocre Southeast Division has helped move it into a first-place tie with slumping Carolina. The Thrashers would be chasing four teams in the Atlantic Division and would be 14 points behind first-place Ottawa in the Northeast.
Coming off a shootout victory over Pittsburgh that ended the Penguins' eight-game win streak, Atlanta maintained that momentum with a 5-1 road victory over league-leading Detroit on Tuesday.
Marian Hossa had his seventh career hat trick, and Kari Lehtonen made a personal-best 46 saves as Atlanta improved to 3-1-1 in its last five games.
"It's a lot of fun. Obviously, I have a lot of family and friends here -- about 40 tickets or so. It was well worth it," said Waddell, a former Red Wings assistant general manager.
Mark Recchi continued his production with a pair of assists. The 19-year veteran has flourished since he was picked up off waivers by Atlanta on Dec. 8, collecting seven goals and 11 assists in 18 games.
Star left wing Ilya Kovalchuk was limited to one assist Tuesday after he had goals in four straight games. The NHL leader with 37 goals, Kovalchuk has eight goals and eight assists during a 10-game point streak.
Lehtonen has been very sharp in his last three games, going 2-0-1 with a 1.58 goals-against average. He has won two straight starts against the Canadiens, allowing two goals in each appearance.
Atlanta has a pair of 3-2 shootout wins this season against Montreal, but is 9-18-1 with two ties in the all-time series.
Montreal (23-14-8) continued its impressive road play with a 3-1 victory Tuesday over the New York Islanders.
Tomas Plekanec scored in each of the first two periods, and Cristobal Huet needed to make only 17 saves as the Canadiens rebounded from Saturday's 4-1 loss to the New York Rangers.
"It was tough to take it," said Alex Kovalev, who had a goal and assist. "Everyone was anxious to get it right back and show that we're actually still a good team, we just had a bad game. That's why everybody was so hungry and put up a good effort."
Kovalev has eight goals and 12 assists in his last 17 games. He is on pace for his best season since he had 95 points with Pittsburgh in 2000-01.
Montreal's 15th road win put it one behind league leader San Jose. The Canadiens have at least one point in eight of their last nine overall games (6-1-2).