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GAME: Atlanta Thrashers (35-30-6) at Tampa Bay Lightning (38-29-5).
TIME: Thursday, 7:30 p.m. EST.
Tied with two teams in the race for the sixth through eighth seeds in the Eastern Conference, the Tampa Bay Lightning look to hold off another playoff hopeful when they host the Atlanta Thrashers.
Tampa Bay lost 2-1 to Carolina on Monday night, then watched as Montreal and New Jersey won Tuesday to pull into a tie for sixth with the Lightning with 81 points. The Lightning, Canadiens and Devils each have 10 games remaining.
Winning the tight race for the sixth spot could be crucial achievement. The sixth-place team in the East appears headed for a matchup with the New York Rangers or Philadelphia Flyers, or a first-round meeting with Buffalo if the Sabres continue their late-season slide. The team that finishes seventh or eighth, however, will draw Ottawa or Carolina in the opening round. Both of those clubs have hit the 100-point mark.
While the Lightning have handled the Hurricanes this season, winning four of the six meetings with their Southeast Division rivals, Monday's loss was a badly timed one for Tampa Bay. The Lightning were outshot 29-24 and the Hurricanes' Mark Recchi scored the go-ahead goal in the second period, sending Tampa Bay to its second loss in six games.
"I thought we played hard, considering the adversity we're fighting here," Tampa Bay forward Martin St. Louis said. "We fought hard, just didn't get the second goal. But every game is huge right now, so we'll get ready for the next one."
St. Louis scored for the Lightning on an assist from Brad Richards, who pushed his point streak to six games. Richards has two goals and 10 assists in that span.
While the Lightning are tied with Montreal and New Jersey, they can't forget about surging Atlanta, only five points out of a playoff spot. The Thrashers, though, have had four days to think about Saturday's lackluster 5-1 loss to the New York Islanders that ended their three-game winning streak.
"We were outplayed from the moment the first puck was dropped," said Atlanta coach Bob Hartley, whose team scored 16 goals during its winning streak. "You don't need to be a rocket scientist to see how we played."
Hartley's team, however, has won 11 of its last 14 to make a push for the first playoff berth in franchise history.
"This is the time of year you wait for, and we're right there," Hartley said. "Guys who have never been in the playoffs before will feel that pressure. We're approaching the finish line of an 82-game season. It now goes from a marathon to a sprint, and when you're bunched up with other teams like we are, it's not talent that will get you there, but commitment."
Ilya Kovalchuk scored his 45th goal of the season for Atlanta on Saturday.
Tampa Bay's John Grahame has two of his five shutouts this season against Atlanta. He allowed nine goals in two November losses to the Thrashers, but is 7-4-1 lifetime against them with four shutouts in 13 games.
The Lightning and Thrashers meet two more times after Thursday's contest, on April 6 and 11. All three remaining matchups are at Tampa Bay.
STANDINGS: Thrashers - 76 points, 3rd place, 24 PB, Southeast Division. Lightning - 81 points, 2nd place, 19 PB, Southeast Division.
TEAM LEADERS: Thrashers - Kovalchuk, 45 goals; Marc Savard, 60 assists; Kovalchuk and Savard, 86 points; Andy Sutton, 116 PIM. Lightning - Vincent Lecavalier, 32 goals; Richards, 58 assists and 79 points; Lecavalier and Pavel Kubina, 88 PIM.
SPECIAL TEAMS: Thrashers - Power play: 19.1 percent (91 for 477), 8th in NHL. Penalty killing: 79.5 percent (346 for 435), 24th. Lightning - Power play: 16.1 percent (69 for 428), 23rd. Penalty killing: 81.7 percent (285 for 349), 19th.
GOALTENDERS: Thrashers - Kari Lehtonen (18-13-0, 2 SO, 2.84 GAA); Mike Dunham (4-4-1, 1, 2.71). Lightning - Grahame (27-19-1, 5, 2.98); Gerald Coleman (0-0-1, 2.79).
SEASON SERIES: Lightning, 3-2.
LAST MEETING: Jan. 21; Lightning, 2-0. At Atlanta, Fredrik Modin and Lecavalier scored power-play goals and Grahame stopped 20 shots for the Lightning.
ROAD/HOME RECORDS: Thrashers - 15-17-2 on the road; Lightning - 20-12-2 at home.
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