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For Tampa Bay, a high-stakes win

LIGHTNING 4, THRASHERS 3: A solid effort against playoff chaser carries a lesson, restores pride.

By TOM JONES
Published March 31, 2006


TAMPA - For the past few days, the Lightning tried to downplay the importance of Thursday's showdown with the Atlanta Thrashers. Coach John Tortorella gave it the old "just 1-of-82-games" speech, saying with a straight face that it was no more or less important than a game in October.

The implications, however, were obvious. Win and take a giant step toward the postseason. Lose and the ground becomes a little more unstable.

With such enormous stakes, the Lightning showed the moxie of a defending champion with a 4-3 victory that wasn't nearly as close as the score suggested.

"They played their (tails) off," Tortorella said.

The victory in front of 20,154 at the St. Pete Times Forum by no means assures the Lightning (39-29-5) a playoff spot, but its place in the eight-team playoff pack is a lot cushier. Tampa Bay leads ninth-place Atlanta by seven points with nine games left. Atlanta has 10 games left, but that's a steep mountain to climb in so few games.

Meantime, the Lightning, which remains locked in sixth place with Montreal and New Jersey, put Florida a little further back in the rearview mirror. With games against Florida on Saturday and Monday, the Lightning has an eight-point lead over the Panthers.

Just as critical, the short-handed Lightning, playing without injured stars Dan Boyle, Pavel Kubina and Fredrik Modin, restored a little pride in a team that has had plenty of doubters. With the upstart Thrashers nipping at the back of their skates, the players wanted to send a message to everyone.

"We had that feeling in the dressing room that it was one of those games," center Brad Richards said. "There was a lot of calmness in here. We addressed a few things about being focused and mentally prepared."

Whatever was said worked as the Lightning dominated for 55 of the game's 60 minutes, and took a 4-0 lead. Tortorella preached how the Lightning needed a few role players to pick up their games and that's what happened. Dmitry Afanasenkov, playing on a line with Richards and Marty St. Louis, scored the first two goals.

"He took his game to another level," Tortorella said.

"It was important because I haven't been scoring much," said Afanasenkov, who set a career mark for goals in a season with eight. "I feel it was a chance for me to (show) what I can do."

The back-breaking goal came from Tim Taylor, who scored 27 seconds after Afanasenkov late in the second period to make it 3-0. It was his seventh goal, but first since Jan. 13 - a span of 28 games.

"It has been kind of wearing on me," Taylor said. "You need everyone to step up. These are getting more and more like playoff games, and everyone has to contribute."

Rookie Paul Ranger made his first contribution to the goal sheet, scoring his first NHL goal at 8:04 of the third.

"I wasn't sure it went in," Ranger said. "I just saw the mesh move. ... Unfortunately, it turned out to be the winner."

That's because the Thrashers threw a late scare into the Lightning. Goalie John Grahame's shutout was spoiled with 9:16 left, and Atlanta goals at 18:21 and 19:08 made the final seconds dicey. But it didn't erase the result and the Lightning's statement.

"I really respect how our team stuck together and played a game as a team," Tortorella said. "We haven't been in this spot, having success and then being in a dog fight to get into the (playoffs). But you use this time to find out what your club is about."

And what did Tortorella find out with Thursday's huge victory?

"That they can (win a big game)," Tortorella said. "And the most important thing is they know they can do it."