RALEIGH, N.C. - In the congested Southeast Division, one sustained stretch of solid play could make the difference between winning the division or missing the playoffs.
After the Carolina Hurricanes overwhelmed the Atlanta Thrashers 5-3 Thursday night, Carolina coach Peter Laviolette hopes the Hurricanes are in the middle of such a spurt.
"That's five out of six games where I've really liked the way we've played," Laviolette said.
Even after losing captain Rod Brind'Amour to a season-ending torn ACL on Feb. 14, the Hurricanes are 4-1-1 in their last six to carve out what counts for breathing room in the Southeast.
With the victory, the Hurricanes extended their division lead to four points over the second-place Washington Capitals and five over the third-place Thrashers.
Carolina is also 5-0-1 in its last six home games.
"This time of your year, you've got to look within your own stall and say, 'I've got to bring what I've got tonight to help out,"' Carolina's Scott Walker said. "That's what everybody's been doing. I think everyone's been doing a great job."
Walker led the way for the Hurricanes with one goals and two assists. Ray Whitney, Ryan Bayda and Sergei Samsonov scored second-period goals, and Keith Aucoin also scored for the Hurricanes. Cam Ward made 25 saves.
Eric Perrin, Mark Recchi and Todd White scored for Atlanta.
Thrashers goalie Kari Lehtonen had one of his busiest nights of the season, making 41 saves. Twenty-one of those came in the first period when Carolina carried the play, outshooting the Thrashers 21-5. Only Lehtonen's stellar play kept Atlanta in the game.
"I think it was a big joke the whole first period," Lehtonen said. "I do not know why we were not ready."
Atlanta was hoping for a better showing after being outshot 49-10 by the New York Islanders in a 4-1 loss Sunday.
"It's not the start we were looking for," Atlanta coach Don Waddell said. "We had good energy in the locker room before the game and the guys were fired up, so I wish we could pinpoint it. It's pretty disappointing to come out with that kind of start."
The Hurricanes broke through in the second when Eric Staal pressured Lehtonen behind the Thrashers' net, forcing Lehtonen to lose control of the puck. Staal then nudged it to Whitney, who was in front.
The Thrashers scored less than two minutes later when Perrin knocked a rebound of Marian Hossa's shot past Ward.
Carolina went up 2-1 just over a minute later when Bayda redirected shot by Tim Gleason from the point past Lehtonen.
The Hurricanes scored again when Frank Kaberle gathered his own rebound in the slot and slapped it off Samsonov's skate. Samsonov's foot appeared to be off the ground when it redirected the puck in the net, but the play withstood a video review.
Samsonov has scored seven goals in 20 games since Carolina claimed him on re-entry waivers on Jan. 8.
Atlanta trimmed the deficit to a goal late in the period when Ilya Kovalchuk's shot from the point smacked off the end boards and bounced back into the crease. Recchi, who played for Carolina when it won the Stanley Cup in 2006, poked the puck above Ward's glove for a power-play goal. Recchi has scored nine goals in 33 games with Atlanta.
Aucoin and Walker scored early in the third to make it 5-2.
Carolina cruised from there.
"We knew the importance of it, obviously," Whitney said. "We came out and we had a little energy to us. We had a little spark to us. We decided we had to get pucks to the net and get them any way we can. We were certainly ready for tonight's game."
Notes: Atlanta dropped to 12-8-1 in division games. ... Staal has seven points in his last five games. ... Four of Atlanta's next five games are on the road. ... The Hurricanes are the only team in the NHL without a defenceman averaging at least 20 minutes of ice time.