Atlanta (17-11-5), one of the NHL's biggest surprises this season, is one point behind Southeast-leading Washington. The Thrashers finished second -- and a whopping 38 points -- in back of the Capitals in 2009-10 while failing to make the playoffs for the ninth time in 10 seasons.
A 10-2-2 stretch has helped put Atlanta in position to claim first place this late in a season for the first time since winning the Southeast in 2006-07.
Despite the Thrashers' success, the team's low attendance is drawing concerns from the league, which would like to see them sold to local ownership. However, the league isn't ruling out other alternatives which could include relocation.
"This is what I'd say to any franchise, not just Atlanta, there comes a point in time where if there is no alternative in terms of ownership or in terms of support in a particular market, you have to look at alternatives," deputy commissioner Bill Daly said. "That is just the reality."
The reality on the ice has been largely positive, but Atlanta's last two games have resulted in shootout losses, including Thursday's 3-2 home defeat to Carolina, seen by just 11,043. The Thrashers outshot the Hurricanes 47-29 through overtime.
"We win more, I guess, when we get outshot," coach Craig Ramsay said. "We took the puck, threw it at the net. We did the things we're supposed to do."
While the Thrashers are dealing with an uncertain future, they'll be visited by Kovalchuk -- the one-time face of the franchise -- for the second time. The forward holds of the club's offensive records, including 328 goals, 287 assists and 615 points, and was also a part of Atlanta's lone playoff team.
Kovalchuk has struggled to replicate that success since being dealt to New Jersey (9-20-2) in February, but he's accumulated two goals and four assists during a four-game points streak to match his longest with the Devils.
The three-time All-Star has seven goals, nine assists and is a minus-17 this season. He was held without a point in the Devils' 3-0 win on April 6 in his first visit to Atlanta.
New Jersey took three of four from the Thrashers last season, and has won six straight at Philips Arena.
Extending that streak may appear to be more daunting in 2010-11, as the Devils have dropped seven in a row on the road while being outscored 21-9. They haven't dropped eight in a row away from home since a franchise-record 12-game slide from Oct. 19-Dec. 1, 1983.
New Jersey, 4-12-0 on the road, was down three goals before scoring in the third period Friday en route to a 3-1 home loss to Nashville.
"It's unacceptable," Kovalchuk said. "I don't know what happened. We can't play like that, especially in our home building."
While Kovalchuk is still struggling, Dustin Byfuglien has been excellent for Atlanta.
He leads all defensemen with 11 goals and 33 points, one fewer than his total from all of last season as a forward with Stanley Cup-winning Chicago.
Byfuglien has one goal and two assists in four meetings with New Jersey.
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