By NICOLINO Di BENEDETTO, STATS Writer
The Atlanta Thrashers will try to continue the best start in franchise history at the expense of a team they've dominated at home.
Atlanta (5-1-1) goes for its eighth straight win at Philips Arena over the Florida Panthers when they meet Saturday night in the start of a home-and-home series between the top two teams in the Southeast Division.
Starting with a victory in November 2003, the Thrashers have won seven consecutive home matchups with the Panthers (4-3-1), outscoring them 32-16.
Since joining Atlanta last season, Marian Hossa has been a factor against the Panthers no matter where they play. Just 27 years old, the nine-year veteran has five goals and eight assists during a five-game points streak against them.
Hossa extended that run with two goals and an assist in a 6-0 rout on Oct. 7 at Philips Arena.
Overall, Hossa leads Atlanta with seven goals -- including five on the power play -- and 11 points. He scored twice and added an assist in regulation before netting the game-winner in the shootout in a 4-3 win over Washington on Thursday.
"We never quit. That's what is big about this team," said Hossa. "We showed a lot of character and got a big two points."
Another reason for Atlanta's good start has been goaltender Kari Lehtonen. He's started all seven games, has a 1.81 goals-against average and is tied with San Jose's Evgeni Nabokov for the league lead with two shutouts.
Lehtonen is 4-0 with a 2.21 GAA at home in his career against Florida, including the shutout win earlier this month.
The Panthers, meanwhile, have been outscored 16-4 while losing all four road games this season. They have not dropped five consecutive road contests since dropping a franchise-record 13 in a row from Oct. 27-Dec. 17.
But Florida remained perfect at home with a 3-2 win over Philadelphia on Friday. Olli Jokinen snapped a 2-2 tie with 1:43 remaining in the second period and Ed Belfour finished with 25 saves to give the Panthers' their best home start since 1995-96 when they reached the Stanley Cup finals.
"This is a good win. The Flyers are a gritty team," Panthers coach Jacques Martin said. "We had a good start and Eddie was really strong."
Belfour, second on the all-time wins list, got his first in three starts with Florida and 458th of his career. The 41-year-old netminder is 9-3-1 with a 1.83 GAA in 13 career starts against the Thrashers but may want to forget his last start against them.
In the loss on Oct. 7, he was replaced by Alex Auld after surrendering four goals on nine shots.
Joe Nieuwendyk may return for this contest from a groin injury that has kept him out for five games. The 40-year-old center has two goals and an assist, all in a season-opening 8-3 win over the Boston Bruins on Oct. 6.
Another injured Panther, Todd Bertuzzi, missed Friday's game with back spasms and is expected to be a game-time decision Saturday. He has six assists and seven points in seven games.
The teams will meet again on Monday night at the BankAtlantic Center in Sunrise, Fla.
NHL - Florida Panthers/Atlanta Thrashers Preview Saturday October 21, 2006 - Yahoo! Sports