The Ottawa Senators know they can't afford many more losses as they try to remain in the hunt for a playoff spot in the Eastern Conference. Already eliminated from postseason contention, the Atlanta Thrashers have settled for a spoiler role.
Ottawa looks to pick up some much-needed points Saturday night when it visits an Atlanta team that's played its best hockey of the season this month.
The Senators (32-31-10) have made the playoffs every season since 1996-97, including an appearance in the Stanley Cup finals against Anaheim two years ago. This season, though, Ottawa has struggled.
Craig Hartsburg lasted only 48 games in his first season as coach, getting fired Feb. 2 as the Senators owned the NHL's third-worst record at the time (17-24-7). Cory Clouston took over and has led Ottawa to a 15-7-3 mark, but it appears to be too little, too late.
The Senators are in 12th place in the East, 11 points behind Montreal for the final playoff spot with just nine games left.
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They opened a six-game road trip Sunday with their season high-tying fifth straight win, 2-1 over the New York Rangers, before having that run come to an end with a 2-1 loss to Carolina on Wednesday.
Ottawa had won nine of its previous 10.
"We're pretty desperate," general manager Bryan Murray told the Senators' official Web site. "Now you have to win pretty much every game and hope that the other teams ahead of us don't win. And when they play each other, that's almost impossible. But you hope it balances out, that you can still have the idea and the players have the idea that they're playing for something."
Atlanta (31-38-6) isn't playing for anything but pride.
The Thrashers have shown signs of improvement in March, going 8-4-0 with four of those wins coming against teams that are currently in playoff position. They defeated one of those clubs Thursday night, overcoming a three-goal deficit to beat the seventh-place Rangers 5-4 in a shootout.
After New York built a 4-1 lead late in the second period, Ilya Kovalchuk scored and assisted on two goals as Atlanta tied it with 6:50 remaining in regulation.
Todd White scored the only goal in the shootout to give Atlanta its sixth win in eight home games.
"To hang in there and hang in there and hang around and not quit in the third ... we haven't got a lot to play for, but I think we owe our fans and even ourselves a solid effort no matter what happens," coach John Anderson said. "And that's what happened. We went out and played as hard as we could and got a couple of goals."
Kovalchuk scored for the third straight game to give him 39 goals on the season - fourth-most in the NHL. He has 18 goals and 17 assists in his last 19 games.
The 25-year-old left wing has just one assist in three games this season against Ottawa, which has won two of those matchups. Kovalchuk scored seven goals in four meetings with the Senators last season, but Atlanta won only once.