TAMPA, Fla. (AP) - Atlanta is desperate and confident, a combination the Thrashers hope will carry them into the NHL playoffs.
"Every guy in the room right now believes that we can do it," defenseman Andy Sutton said Tuesday night after Atlanta's 6-2 victory over Tampa Bay tightened the race for the last two positions in the Eastern Conference.
"If we were to get in, I don't think there's a team in the league that would want to play us, especially the way we've been playing down the stretch," Sutton added. "I'd like to see it get interesting."
Sutton and Bobby Holik each scored twice and Mike Dunham stopped 32 shots to help ninth-place Atlanta move within four points of the eighth-place Lightning. The Thrashers can pull even closer to the defending Stanley Cup champion by beating Washington at home on Thursday night.
Atlanta has 85 points with four games remaining, while Tampa Bay has 89 - two less than seventh-place Montreal - with three games left on its schedule.
"With a win Thursday, we're seriously in the ballgame and anything can happen," Thrashers coach Bob Hartley said.
"You ride a tough streak, you want to get out of it. You ride a good streak, you want to keep going. Right now, the boys are on a mission. We're getting commitment from everyone."
Marian Hossa and Steve McCarthy also scored for the Thrashers, who have remained in playoff contention by winning their last two games with Dunham in goal in place of the injured Kari Lehtonen.
The Atlanta goalie made 23 saves Saturday to beat Carolina for his first win since Nov. 13 and was so good Tuesday night that the Thrashers were able to build a 6-1 lead despite being outshot 23-17 in the first two periods.
"Every game is huge and every win is big, certainly when you can close the gap on the team you're chasing," Dunham said.
Tampa Bay won five of the first seven meetings between the Southeast Division rivals this season, but sputtered this time after taking a 1-0 lead on Dmitry Afanasenkov's goal less than 6 minutes into the game.
Sutton tied it with his first goal and Holik's first gave Atlanta a 2-1 lead after one period. The Thrashers broke it open with four more goals in the first 15 minutes of the second period.
"We started out really well," Tampa Bay coach John Tortorella said. "But for some reason after they scored their goal we were like deer in headlights. I don't have an answer for that, but obviously that has to be cured."
The Lightning removed goalie Sean Burke after McCarthy's goal made it 5-1 only to watch Hossa beat John Grahame for a short-handed goal that sent many in the crowd of 19,829 scurrying for the exits with more than 5 minutes remaining in the period.
Tampa Bay's Martin St. Louis scored a power-play goal in the third period, but the Lightning were unable to do further damage against Dunham.
The lopsided loss was the second straight for Tampa Bay, which lost 6-3 to Florida on Sunday.
"I felt that in the morning skate they were ready, they were focused," Tortorella said. "I am surprised with the reaction after a goal goes in on you. But I still believe in the team that we will get this done."
Notes: Burke was 8-0 lifetime against Atlanta before Tuesday night. The Thrashers scored on five of 14 shots against him. ... Graham stopped nine of 10 shots. ... Lehtonen did not dress for the second straight game since injuring his left ankle last Thursday in a collision with Tampa Bay's Chris Dingman. ... Brad Richards' assist on Tampa Bay's first goal gave him at least one in 11 of the Lightning's last 12 games.
|Dimitri Afanasenkov (9) ASST: Brad Richards (66), Ryan Craig (12)|
1 - 0 TBL
|Andy Sutton (5) ASST: Peter Bondra (18), Ilya Kovalchuk (45)|
1 - 1 Tie
|Bobby Holik (13) ASST: NONE|
2 - 1 ATL
|Andy Sutton (6) ASST: Vyacheslav Kozlov (43)|
3 - 1 ATL
|Bobby Holik (14) ASST: Scott Mellanby (20), Jim Slater (9)|
4 - 1 ATL
|PPG - Steve McCarthy (7) ASST: Marc Savard (67), Ilya Kovalchuk (46)|
5 - 1 ATL
|SHG - Marian Hossa (37) ASST: Serge Aubin (16)|
6 - 1 ATL
|PPG - Martin St. Louis (29) ASST: Dan Boyle (36), Freddy Modin (23)|
6 - 2 ATL
|Ilya Kovalchuk Tripping|
|Peter Bondra Too many men/ice - bench|
|Paul Ranger Hooking|
|Garnet Exelby Elbowing|
|Cory Sarich Cross checking|
|Jaroslav Modry Holding the stick|
|Paul Ranger Holding|
|Vyacheslav Kozlov Hooking|
|Paul Ranger Tripping|
|Steve McCarthy Holding the stick|
|Vinny Prospal Hooking|