-- With an offense that ranks in the upper third of the NHL and superstars and proven winners sprinkled throughout the ranks of their forwards, the Tampa Bay Lightning
would appear on paper to boast a lineup that could contend for one of the top four spots in the Eastern Conference.
However, early this season their Achilles' heel was their goaltending, as Mike Smith and Dan Ellis surrendered embarrassingly large numbers of goals on a seemingly regular basis.
That all has changed over the last three weeks, as the Lighting have shown how good they can be with consistency in net. On Sunday, Ellis made 26 saves to win for the third time in his last four games, as Vinny Lecavalier scored his second goal of the game on a power play in overtime for a 3-2 victory over the Thrashers at Philips Arena.
In going 3-0-1 in his last four since Smith went down with a knee sprain, Ellis has stopped 107 of 115 shots for a .930 save percentage and a goals-against average below 2.00. Not bad considering he entered the game with an .885 save percentage and 3.03 GAA.
His play allowed Tampa Bay, 6-0-2 in its last eight, to stay even with Washington atop the Southeast Division with 47 points.
"Obviously, we're the team in the League that allows the least shots," said Tampa coach Guy Boucher, whose team is the stingiest at 27.2 shots per game but still has allowed four more goals than it has scored.
"It's something that we wanted to pride ourselves on but, obviously, our goaltenders weren't at their best for a little while, but they were working so hard. What it means to me is that I'm just happy for them. Everybody was pulling for them. They're great people. They work hard, they just had a bad stretch and they wanted to get out of it so hard. So what it does is it obviously gives us stability and consistency, and everybody's confident with our goaltenders in the net right now.
"It does make a big difference."
Ellis said the last four games represent his best play of the season. With less than eight minutes left in regulation, he made two big saves on Thrashers' defensemen -- the first on Dustin Byfuglien, the League-leader in goals at his position with 13, who had plenty of time to line up a shot, and then another 52 seconds later by Ron Hainsey, as a confident Ellis left his crease to blunt that attempt.
"It's weird, the goals were going in this year but it was really strange because you feel good when you're out there and stuff," Ellis said. "It's just an adjustment to a new system, a new team system but also a new goaltending system that Frantz Jean, our goalie coach, has kind of taught, so sometimes that learning curve kind of goes a little longer than you'd like it, a little longer than expected.
"When you get a chance to play a bunch of games, you want to start it off on a good note. It worked out well [in a 5-1 win against Carolina on Dec. 20 that began Ellis' current streak], and then you just want to try and keep it rolling the best you can. I think that the more that you play, you get a little better rhythm, a little better feel for your paint, for your angles, your vision and stuff like that. You don't have to battle and try to replicate it in practice as much because you're getting it constantly in games."
The win also was Tampa's ninth straight over Atlanta, the longest winning streak in the NHL by one team over another. It was largely enabled by Byfuglien, who was assessed a boarding call on Randy Jones with 11 seconds left in regulation and his team on a power play after the Lightning's Victor Hedman
shot the puck over the glass from his defensive zone for a delay of game penalty with 1:13 left in regulation.
"We've got to be smarter," Thrashers coach Craig Ramsay said. "But we have to stay disciplined throughout the game, no matter what's happening around us."
After a brief 3-on-3 session, the Lightning, owners of the League's No. 3 power play, took their time setting up the winning goal. Marty St. Louis, who played with flu, earned his second assist of the night, his 33rd of the season, with the primary assist.
Lecavalier said Boucher practices the power play more than any coach he's ever had -- and all kinds of scenarios, including 5-on-3 and 4-on-3.
"That's his -- I don't want to say specialty -- but he wants us to score on the power play because it's important to have a good one," Lecavalier said.
The Thrashers, losers of three straight, could have forced a three-way tie for first place in the Southeast with a regulation victory and a regulation loss by Washington. Instead, Tampa Bay and Washington, a 3-2 winner over Carolina, remained atop the division.
Jim Slater helped to set up the tying goal and send the game to overtime. Slater won a puck battle along the left boards just outside Tampa's blue line, then raced in on net and put a shot on Ellis. Former Bolt Freddy Modin cashed in the rebound for his seventh goal with 3:43 left in regulation.
Simon Gagne set up the Lightning's second goal by entering the Thrashers' zone and put a low, hard wrist shot on Thrashers goalie Ondrej Pavelec (31 saves), forcing him to kick the rebound into the slot. Lecavalier converted the rebound at 9:04 of the second before Atlanta could get to it.
On Tampa Bay's first goal, Ryan Malone
skated swiftly down the right side and, angled off by Atlanta defenseman Tobias Enstrom, put a backhander on net. Pavelec sticked it into the slot where Steven Stamkos
beat Byfuglien to the rebound for his 28th goal at 8:14 of the first period.
"It's just been something we've practiced," Stamkos said. "We practiced it this morning. You look at their goal, too. When you've got two good goalies playing hot for both teams right now it's going to be tough to beat them on some open shots so we've got to get pucks to the net, whether it's forehand or backhand or driving. ... It's a good way to create chances."
Zach Bogosian tied the game at 1-1 at 6:12 of the second for Atlanta. Bryan Little led the rush, drawing two Lightning defenders. He passed to Anthony Stewart along the right side and then Stewart dropped the puck for Bogosian, who stepped into his slap shot shot and beat Ellis low to the stick side.