It was a huge game for the Tampa Lightning, as they played their much-improved Southeast Division rival Atlanta Thrashers at St. Pete Times Forum last night.
Atlanta was riding a 10-2-0 stretch in their last 12 coming in, proving to be one of the hottest teams in the entire NHL. They had just passed Tampa Bay in the standings and pulled to within two points of the slumping division-leading Washington Capitals.
The Bolts, coming off of a 1-1-1 West coast swing, have had a decent showing of their own, with a 8-3-2 record in their last 13.
The Lightning had some additional good news. Captain Vincent Lecavalier, out for the past 15 games after surgery to repair a broken right hand, was returning to the lineup.
A big question mark for Tampa has been with regards to the goaltending.
Dan Ellis had started the last four, posting a 2-1-1 mark. But there was an issue with soft goals being given up, especially at the worst possible times.
Mike Smith, whose last start was in the disastrous 8-1 thumping at the hands of the Boston Bruins on December 2nd, got the call against the Thrashers.
Smith’s counterpart, Ondrej Pavelec, was 3-1-0 in his previous four and 9-2-0 in his past 11. Pavelec, who had a scary incident where he passed out on the ice against the Washington Capitals back in mid-November, has wrestled the starting goaltending spot away from Chris Mason, who had been signed as an unrestricted free agent over the summer.
The game would turn out to be a good, old-fashioned goaltender’s duel.
Smith would allow a shorthanded tally in the first by Rich Peverley, but slammed the door shut after that. He would go on to make 23 saves on 24 shots in regulation.
The Lightning were able to tie the contest late in the second period, as Sean Bergenheim scored his sixth goal of the season just nine seconds after serving a high-sticking minor.
Atlanta outshot Tampa Bay 4-1 in the extra period, but Smith held the Lightning in the game and got them into the shootout.
The shootout would go four rounds with defenseman Victor Hedman, taking part in his first-ever shootout, striking the winning blow for the Lightning.
This was an excellent game for Smith to use to build his confidence, which may have taken a bit of a hit in the Boston game at the beginning of the month. He now owns a 9-5-0 record, with a 3.36 goals-against average, and an .879 save percentage.
Look for Guy Boucher to come right back with Smith in the Bolts’ next game, at home Saturday night against the Buffalo Sabres. He has made a habit of going with his hot hand, and Smith is about the closest thing Boucher has at this time.
After Saturday, the Lightning play the Carolina Hurricanes at home Monday night before hitting the road for three games.
After playing the New York Islanders on Wednesday, Tampa Bay will face seven straight opponents that are in the Eastern Conference top eight as playoff hopefuls.
Included in that group are the Bruins, two against the New York Rangers, and one each against the division rival Capitals and Thrashers.
Bolts Bits: Lecavalier played 16:58 and registered four shots on goal and a +1. He also won 11-of-16 faceoffs…Adam Hall won six-of-seven draws…defensemen Mike Lundin and Mattias Ohlund led the Lightning with three blocked shots each…Ryan Malone’s seven game point scoring streak was stopped last night, a stretch in which he recorded four goals and six assists.
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