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Ward, Hurricanes turn back Thrashers
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ATLANTA — Carolina goalie Cam Ward made a brilliant return after being out nearly two months, Erik Cole scored a decisive goal with 4:11 left and the Hurricanes beat the Thrashers 4-1 Monday night, dealing a blow to Atlanta's playoff hopes.

Jussi Jokinen scored twice for Carolina, including an empty-net goal after the desperate Thrashers pulled Johan Hedberg for an extra skater with more than 2 minutes left. Atlanta missed a chance to pull even with Boston for the final playoff spot in the Eastern Conference.

Jokinen's first goal broke a 1-1 tie in the second period, and Cole finished off the Thrashers by ripping a shot past Hedberg after Ward had turned away Atlanta's repeated chances. Ward made 26 saves in his first contest since Feb. 3, having missed 19 games with a back injury.

The Thrashers came into the night trailing Boston by two points, and the Bruins opened the door by losing at home to Buffalo 3-2 in regulation. Atlanta couldn't take advantage, closing out a strange season series with a division rival clinging to faint hope of making the playoffs.

Atlanta won all three games at Raleigh, including a 4-0 shutout Saturday night that boosted its hopes. But Carolina won the return game in the home-and-home to finish off a sweep of the three meetings in Georgia.

Ward sure didn't look rusty after his long layoff. He came up big on Niclas Bergfors in the second period when the Atlanta winger broke in all alone. Ward stopped the initial shot, the rebound going right back to Bergfors, who got off another shot. Ward blocked that one, too.

In the third period, Jim Slater stole the puck and came in on a breakaway for a possible tying goal with the Thrashers shorthanded, but Ward made the save. Rich Peverley picked off the long rebound and fired another shot through a screen, only to have Ward turn that away with a nifty flick of the pads.

The Hurricanes finally caught the pressing Thrashers. Ray Whitney passed in front to Cole, standing all alone in the slot for a one-timer that beat Hedberg to make it 3-1. Atlanta defenseman Johnny Oduya slammed his stick off the post in disgust.

The Thrashers went ahead in the first period on Nik Antropov's power-play goal. Bergfors swept in behind the net and flipped a pass toward Antropov, who appeared to be tied up by Brian Pothier but managed to get loose just enough to deflect the puck past Ward for his 23rd goal of the season.

But Carolina snatched away the lead with a pair of goals in the second. With both teams down a man, Joni Pitkanen and Whitney pulled off a couple of rapid-fire passes to set up Brandon Sutter's 19th goal at 1:52.

About 71/2 minutes later, the Hurricanes went ahead for good. Sutter was in the middle of things this time, taking a pass from Chad LaRose and working it in front for Jokinen, who scored his 28th goal.

He added his 29th into the empty net.

NOTES: Jokinen played in his 100th career game for Carolina. ... Atlanta RW Bryan Little went out in the third period after getting struck in front with a shot by teammate Ron Hainsey. The extent of the injury wasn't immediately known.
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