Thrashers-Lightning Preview

It has been a month since the Atlanta Thrashers traded away the

player who holds nearly every offensive franchise record, but

they’re not having problems scoring goals.

Offense has never come easily for Atlanta, however, against

Antero Niittymaki.

The Thrashers look to continue their unlikely playoff push with

a third straight victory Saturday night against the struggling

Tampa Bay Lightning, who will likely have Niittymaki in net as the

goalie tries to improve to 17-0-0 against Atlanta.

The Thrashers figured to have a hard time replacing Ilya

Kovalchuk’s offense when they dealt the team’s longtime goals and

points leader to New Jersey on Feb. 4.

But after losing its first game without the Russian, Atlanta has

averaged 4.0 goals during a 4-0-2 stretch that straddled the

Olympic break. The team has won twice since the NHL resumed play,

moving into an eighth-place tie in the Eastern Conference with the

New York Rangers and Montreal.

“I think we feel good about ourselves,” Atlanta coach John

Anderson said. “I don’t know if it’s momentum or confidence or

maybe a little bit of both. If we can keep on this roll the

playoffs are right there.”

The Thrashers (28-24-10) scored four goals in the first 15

minutes of their 6-3 win over the New York Islanders on Thursday

night, getting major contributions from some of their

newcomers.

Niclas Bergfors, acquired from the Devils in the Kovalchuk

trade, had his fourth goal in seven games with the Thrashers and

added an assist, while Evgeny Artyukhin and Clarke MacArthur each

scored in his Atlanta debut after trade deadline deals.

“I thought that we had instant chemistry with the new guys.

That’s a hard thing to find,” Anderson said. “If you score a couple

of goals for your new team, it endears you right away.”

Atlanta has scored a power-play goal in each of its last four

games, but it is 0 for 15 with the man advantage in its last four

meetings with the Lightning, going 0-2-2 in that stretch since a

season-opening 6-3 win over Tampa Bay.

Niittymaki was in net for three of those Lightning wins to

continue his amazing run against the Thrashers. He’s won all 16

career appearances against Atlanta dating back to his days with

Philadelphia, compiling a 1.74 goals-against average.

The Lightning (26-26-11) badly need another victory from

Niittymaki, who has a 6.92 GAA in his last three starts overall.

Tampa Bay lost its final three games before the Olympics and its

first two after the break, slipping to 11th in the East, three

points behind Atlanta.

The deficiency has been clear for the Lightning, who have

allowed five or more goals in each game during the skid, which

would match their longest of the season with one more defeat.

“I don’t know, I really don’t know,” Lightning coach Rick

Tocchet said after a 5-4 loss at Washington on Thursday. “You’ve

got to block a shot or dive to get the puck out of your own end.

Bite the puck to get it out of your own end. We need those types of

players. There are five or six guys that are costing us right

now.”

Steven Stamkos is probably not one of the players who has drawn

Tocchet’s ire. The 20-year-old phenom has five goals in his last

four games, extending his franchise-record points streak to 15

games.