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Striking while hot

LIGHTNING 2, THRASHERS 0: Tampa Bay scores late again to stay in top eight in playoff chase.

By DAMIAN CRISTODERO, Times Staff Writer

© St. Petersburg Times, published February 20, 2003

TAMPA -- John Tortorella stopped himself in mid sentence and smiled.

The Lightning coach was analyzing the good things his players did in Wednesday night's 2-0 victory over the Thrashers when he said, "but ... " as if he were about to qualify all that had come before.

"There's always a but with me," he said.

On this night, though, "but" seemed somewhat out of place as Tampa Bay did so many things right in front of an announced 13,562 at the St. Pete Times Forum, leaving little room for anything but accolades.

The Lightning's most important accomplishment: capitalizing on its two previous victories (Saturday over the Bruins and Monday over the Capitals) with a win over an opponent it was expected to beat.

Tampa Bay faced similar challenges and failed after victories over the Red Wings, Senators and Stars.

"We talked about it three separate times since the last game as far as a letdown, and that's all that was needed," Tortorella said.

That and the winning goal from Martin St. Louis 6:28 into the third period. It was his 28th, but first in eight games.

Brad Richards' goal 1:59 later was good insurance, though with goalie John Grahame making 27 saves for his second Lightning shutout and sixth of his career, it turned out to be window dressing.

It was the third consecutive victory for Tampa Bay, which upped its unbeaten streak to 3-0-1 and earned its 17th home victory, one more than last season.

The Lightning also made up ground in the playoff race.

Its 64 points briefly pushed it to seventh in the East, but the Islanders' 3-0 win against the Sharks late Wednesday pushed the Lightning back to the eighth and final spot. The race is so tight, the team is two points out of fifth.

The Lightning also is two points behind first-place Washington in the Southeast with a game in hand.

"The players are not stupid," Tortorella said. "They look at the standings probably a heck of a lot more than I do. We're in the middle of this, and I think at this point they understand what they need to do to get ready."

Spoiling the party, at least for two periods, was Milan Hnilicka. The Thrashers goalie was solid throughout and made 32 saves, including one on Vinny Lecavalier's penalty shot with 52.9 seconds left in the first period. By Lecavalier's count it was the 11th consecutive breakaway he did not convert.

It was Tampa Bay's 16th penalty shot. It has converted two and has failed on 11 straight since Rob Zamuner scored against the Islanders in January 1997.

"I don't know what to say," Lecavalier said. "It's just a matter of being patient."

A fine choice of words, because that is what the Lightning was while it executed a game plan that paid off in the final 20 minutes.

Tampa Bay has eight goals in its past three third periods, each of which yielded a victory after the team was tied or behind.

"Those are games that show our maturity right now," St. Louis said. "That's the way we've got to play."

"They're a good hockey club, a very good hockey club," Thrashers coach Bob Hartley said. "The Lightning are showing lots of good things. ... We had some good sequences but we couldn't get that big goal."

Tampa Bay's big goals came from the line of Richards, St. Louis and Fredrik Modin, which did not start the game but was reunited late in the second period. Richards and Modin helped on St. Louis' goal. Modin and St. Louis assisted Richards.

The Lightning also got double duty from its defensemen in the absence of Pabvel Kubina, who sat out with concussionlike symptoms from Monday's check into the boards by Washington's Peter Bondra.

Dan Boyle played 33:23, Brad Lukowich played 25:37, Nolan Pratt 24:55 and Cory Sarich 24:11.

"Our past three games have been very good," Tortorella said.

This time he did not hesitate.

"But," he said, "you have to do it again."

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