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Robert Picarello | correspondent
Feb 2, 2007, 12:00 PM EST

While the Atlanta Thrashers started off the second half of the season in first place in the Southeast, they can't afford to get too comfortable, as the past two Stanley Cup winners, Carolina and Tampa Bay, are breathing down their necks.

As of Wednesday night, Tampa Bay was one of the NHL's hottest teams, winning eight of its last 10 games. The Bolts have been getting it done with solid goaltending and timely scoring. Tampa was tied with Atlanta for most goals in the division (165) and was second in goals against, giving up 163 in 52 games. Entering play Thursday, goaltender Johan Holmqvist had won six of his previous eight starts, picking up four consecutive road victories.

Even though Tampa was sitting in third place in its division and eighth in the Eastern Conference with 30 games left to play, all-star winger Marty St. Louis was confident the club would be there in the end come April.

"We're not the same team the year we won the Cup," St. Louis admitted. "I think this year we have a lot of new guys. I think it takes time for the chemistry, takes time to get our stride. I feel good right now. I like our team. I think we're deeper than before. I'm confident we'll have a fair amount of success this year if we keep competing the way we can."

The Hurricanes have had a fair amount of success lately, picking up 12 points in their last 10 games off a 5-3-2 record. But if the 'Canes seriously want to challenge the Thrashers for the top spot in the Southeast, they have to cut down on their goals against and improve their road play. After 53 games, Carolina had given up the fourth-most goals in the Southeast and 11th-most in the East and was only 12-12-3 on the road.

Carolina captain Rod Brind'Amour would love for his club to have a chance to win back-to-back titles, but the veteran forward knows the 'Canes won't be celebrating anything this summer if they don't adjust some things down the stretch.

"We want to do that again. It was such a fun ride, and we know how hard it is, but you want to do it again," Brind'Amour said. "So that's what's keeping our eyes on the prize. Obviously it's a huge, long season and whatnot, but just a sheer enjoyment of the season last year is why we want to do it."

Southeast Stars shine -- The Southeast Division was well represented last week in Dallas. In all, 10 players from the division were in uniform at the American Airlines Center last Wednesday, with seven (Tampa's Martin St. Louis and Vincent Lecavalier, Carolina's Justin Williams and Eric Staal, Atlanta's Marian Hossa, Florida's Jay Bouwmeester and Washington's Alex Ovechkin) suiting up for the All-Star Game and three (Washington's Mike Green, Tampa's Paul Ranger and Atlanta's Kari Lehtonen) taking part in the YoungStars Game.

Hossa represented his team and the conference well during the festivities, posting four assists in the East's 12-9 loss to the West. Williams also had a good showing, netting two points off one goal and one assist. The three youngsters also represented their teams and conference well, with Ranger and Green both registering three-point nights and Lehtonen backstopping the team to a 9-8 win over the West.

"It's actually a lot easier to go there because nobody expects the goalie to be good in that game so if you do well that's great. If not, it doesn't matter," Lehtonen said.

Who's hot -- Atlanta's Ilya Kovalchuk, who registered two goals in Tuesday's 5-4 shootout win over the Devils, has notched five goals in three games since returning from the all-star break.

Hurricanes' left wing Ray Whitney has earned points in nine of Carolina’s last 10 games, scoring five goals and earning nine assists (14 points) dating back to Jan. 6. Whitney picked up multiple assists in three of those games, earning two helpers on Jan. 6 against the Islanders and two against the Leafs on Jan. 9 in Toronto, and three assists on Jan. 26 against Washington.

Tampa Bay's Marty St. Louis has recorded at least a point in 27 of his previous 32 games with 20 goals and 27 assists during that span.

Florida's Eddie Belfour has been strong between the pipes over the last 13 games. "The Eagle" has started nine of those 13 contests and appeared in 10, posting a 5-2-2 record. Belfour's goals-against in those games was a stingy 2.22 and his save percentage was .914.

Washington all-star Alex Ovechkin has a point in all 12 games his team has played in 2007 (7-12-19). The point streak is the longest of his NHL career and is tied for the longest in the NHL this season with Tampa's Martin St. Louis and Detroit's Mathieu Schneider. The Caps record for longest point streak is 17 games, set twice by Hall of Famer Mike Gartner.

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