Two more meetings against one another will go a long way toward determining the fate of each club, and the Penguins will likely have Evgeni Malkin and Sergei Gonchar back Saturday afternoon as they look for an eighth straight win against the visiting Thrashers.
Pittsburgh (44-26-7) will be headed back to the postseason looking to win a second straight Stanley Cup, and all that's left to sort out is its seed -- which could be anywhere from second to fifth.
Atlanta (34-32-12) has a more desperate situation as it tries to make the playoffs for the second time in franchise history. The Thrashers had a chance to pull into a tie for the Eastern Conference's eighth spot Thursday night, but lost 2-1 at Washington, keeping them behind Philadelphia, Montreal and Boston
"We've got to find ways to win and get points," coach John Anderson said. "If everything stays the same, we're out of the playoffs. We've got to make some hay here."
That won't be easy to do in their final four games, which includes another trip to Washington, a home game against New Jersey, and two meetings with the Penguins.
Both Pittsburgh winning the Atlantic and the Thrashers qualifying for the playoffs seem unlikely with two more head-to-head meetings and Atlanta already needing to come from behind.
The Penguins certainly figure to have the edge. They've outscored the Thrashers 28-14 in winning seven consecutive games in the series, but this time Pittsburgh coach Dan Bylsma expects to see the Thrashers' best.
"They're a desperate team," Bylsma said. "They're approaching this like a playoff game, and they have tough opponents going down the stretch. We're expecting that from that team – a tenacious, high work ethic for 60 minutes."
Malkin has been the biggest offensive factor during the seven-game streak against Atlanta -- totaling five goals and 11 assists -- and it looks like he'll return from a bruised right foot just in time to face the Thrashers.
The Conn Smythe Trophy winner sat out seven of the Penguins' last eight games with the injury, while Gonchar has missed four straight due to strep throat. Both practiced Friday and Bylsma expects them to return Saturday.
Pittsburgh needs them. After scoring nine goals in winning the first two games of a six-game homestand, the Penguins couldn't muster any offense in Wednesday's 2-0 loss to Tampa Bay.
"It was pretty bad. There's no sugar coating it or trying to make something positive out of it, we didn't do anything that was positive," said Sidney Crosby, who has two goals in 13 games without Malkin. "We weren't ready to play."
Crosby is in a tight race with Washington's Alex Ovechkin and Tampa Bay's Steven Stamkos for the Maurice Richard Trophy, but having Gonchar back could give Crosby a better chance to find the back of the net.
Pittsburgh's power play has been a dismal without Gonchar running the point. The Penguins are 43 for 217 (19.8 percent) on the man advantage with Gonchar in the lineup, but a woeful 7 for 83 (8.4 percent) without him.
"Certainly having (Malkin and Gonchar) back is going to be a big boost for us," Crosby said. "It doesn't make things any easier without them, but if anything hopefully we're better for it."
The Thrashers conclude the regular season next Saturday by hosting Pittsburgh.