It might be hard to argue there has been a better offseason acquisition than the Atlanta Thrashers getting Dustin Byfuglien.
Having already set a career high for points and helping put Atlanta in good shape to end a three-year playoff drought, the defenseman looks to continue his red-hot play in a road game against the Florida Panthers on Wednesday night.
After keying Chicago's run to the Stanley Cup last season, Byfuglien was dealt to the Thrashers and has become their leading scorer with 16 goals and 41 points - both tops among NHL defensemen. Atlanta (21-15-6) is sixth in the Eastern Conference just past the halfway point of its season, in position to join the 2006-07 club as the only ones in franchise history to make the playoffs.
"Our team's all about having fun, working hard and playing together," Byfuglien said. "We've been doing all right this year."
Byfuglien is on another tear with five goals in the last seven games after scoring his sixth game-winner - third in overtime - in a 4-3 victory at Montreal on Sunday.
"I just bury the head, aim for the back of the net and hope it goes in," said Byfuglien, who has five more points than his previous career best and is a hat trick away from his career high for goals.
The last time Byfuglien did not have at least 20 minutes of ice time was in a 2-1 home loss to Florida on Nov. 17, when he left in the opening period after taking a shot off his leg. Since then, he has 25 points in 23 games with a plus-10 rating. Byfuglien had a goal in each of his previous three meetings with the Panthers.
Ondrej Pavelec made 32 saves in that last matchup with Florida to fall to 1-4-2 for the season, but he's since gone 13-4-2. He won a second straight start Sunday, making a season-high 47 saves, and is among the league leaders with a 2.14 goals-against average.
"He's great every night," Byfuglien said. "He's been stopping pucks for us all year long and that's what we need."
While Atlanta may have righted itself with a second win in three games following a four-game skid, Florida hopes to have done the same with a 3-0-2 run.
A day after Tomas Vokoun tied for the league lead with his fifth shutout in a 3-0 win over the New York Rangers, Florida won 4-3 at Carolina on Monday on Bryan Allen's overtime goal.
"Little steps like tonight helps give us a little confidence," said Allen, who scored for the first time since Nov. 10.
That victory gave the Panthers (18-17-2) more wins than regulation losses for the first time since February.
"We were wondering when the last time the Florida Panthers were above .500," Allen said. "It's good. We've got to keep chipping away."
Chris Higgins has keyed Florida's surge with four goals and an assist in the past five games. He had no goals and five points in the previous 13 games combined.
Vokoun, who got the night off Monday, has split two matchups with the Thrashers this season but is 11-4-1 with a 2.38 GAA in his last 17 starts against them.