ATLANTA – A slump-breaking day by veteran Marian Hossa and a breakout game by rookie Colin Stuart helped the Atlanta Thrashers feel better about their playoff chances.
In a battle between two 2007 division champions who currently don’t make the eight-team playoff cut, Atlanta beat the Buffalo Sabres 5-2 on Sunday as Hossa scored two goals.
Each team began the day with 41 points. The Thrashers (21-21-1), who are three points behind first-place Carolina in the Southeast Division, say it’s not too early to worry about the playoff standings.
“Definitely, it was a huge win,” Hossa said. “Every win is huge right now.
“We have a good chance to be over .500 and be a playoff team again.”
Buffalo, opening a three-game road trip, has lost six in a row for the first time since March 18-27, 2006. The Sabres (19-18-3) have made the conference finals each of the last two years but remain only a point ahead of last-place Toronto in the Northeast.
Johan Hedberg made 37 stops as Buffalo had at least 10 shots on goal in each period.
“We had some really good opportunities, but we weren’t able to score,” said Buffalo’s Jason Pominville.
Buffalo has only 10 goals in the six losses.
“We’re doing things right, but we just can’t score goals,” said Buffalo captain Jaroslav Spacek. “We scored two goals, and that isn’t enough.
“We can play better.”
Hossa had only two goals in his last 14 games before scoring in the first and third periods.
Stuart, a rookie right-winger called up from AHL Chicago on Dec. 28, had a goal and an assist for Atlanta. Stuart made the most of his first opportunity on a line with Hossa and centre Eric Perrin.
“I thought Stuart brought great speed to our line,” Hossa said. “He can shoot.”
Atlanta led only 2-1 before Stuart scored the first of the Thrashers’ three third-period goals on a breakaway. It was his second goal since the promotion.
“It was pretty exciting,” Stuart said. “It was at the end of my shift.
“I was going too fast to make a move, so I just took it to the far side and tucked it in on my backhand.”
Stuart earned an assist as Hossa’s second goal pushed the lead to 4-1.
“Stuart made us look good,” said Thrashers coach Don Waddell. “I thought the whole 60 minutes he was probably our best player and that was by far our best line.”
Pascal Dupuis and Ilya Kovalchuk also scored for Atlanta.
Kovalchuk’s league-leading 34th goal came with 15 seconds left after Buffalo pulled goaltender Ryan Miller.
Hossa’s second goal gave the Thrashers a 4-1 lead. Buffalo’s Clarke MacArthur, called up from Rochester before the game, cut the lead to 4-2 with a goal 9:34 into the third period.
The Sabres scored first about six minutes into the game on Thomas Vanek’s tip-in.
Atlanta answered about three minutes later when Hossa scored after a steal from Ales Kotalik behind the net.
The Thrashers took a 2-1 lead in an otherwise quiet second period when Dupuis scored on a shot off Miller’s skate. Miller partially deflected the shot but then hit the puck as he moved his skate.
The Thrashers won despite drawing five penalties. Buffalo’s only penalty came 11 seconds into the second.
Atlanta, near the bottom of the league with a 77.2 per cent success rate on the penalty kill, stopped each of the five power plays.
Miller made his 14th straight start despite being pulled midway through a 5-3 loss to Ottawa on Friday. Miller’s only shutout of the season came Oct. 11 in a 6-0 win over Atlanta, but he couldn’t stop the Thrashers in the rematch.
“I felt out of sync,” Miller said. “It’s hard to come from behind.
“We pressed too hard and too long. We didn’t have the scorers we needed.”
Notes: The Thrashers are at .500 for the ninth time following an 0-6 start. … Hedberg improved to 11-8-0. … Sabres F Daniel Paille was held out. Paille suffered a possible concussion and was groggy after he was knocked out of Friday’s loss by a hit from Ottawa’s Anton Volchenkov. … Thrashers D Steve McCarthy (oblique) did not play.