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Lightning 3, Thrashers 2, SO @NHLdotcom

TAMPA, Fla. (AP) - The Tampa Bay Lightning are counting on Sean Burke to take them into the playoffs.

The 17-year veteran essentially has taken over as the No. 1 goalie for the defending Stanley Cup champions, who got shootout goals from Vincent Lecavalier and Brad Richards to beat the Atlanta Thrashers 3-2 on Thursday night.

The victory tightened the Lightning's grip on the final playoff position in the Eastern Conference and made coach John Tortorella's decision to turn to the 39-year-old Burke, instead of usual starter John Grahame, look good.

"To me, the biggest positive tonight - other than the two points - was the play of the goaltender," Tortorella said.

The Lightning remain in eighth place in the East with 87 points - six more than ninth-place Atlanta, which could have made the race a little more interesting if it could have found a way to beat Burke.

Each team has six games remaining, including the eighth - and final - meeting of the season between the Southeast Division rivals here Tuesday night.

Burke, in his second start since returning from sitting out two weeks with a broken finger, stopped 29 shots in regulation and overtime, then rejected two of three shots by the Thrashers in the shootout to improve to 8-0 lifetime against the Atlanta.

Grahame is 28-20-1 as a starter this season, but has been inconsistent. Burke is 13-9-3 and welcomes the opportunity to play more.

"It's a day-to-day thing," Burke said. "You're the No. 1 guy when you're playing. When you're not, you're prepared to play in case you have to. That's all that's guaranteed in this game for goaltenders."

Atlanta's Ilya Kovalchuk forced overtime by scoring his 50th goal of the season with just 4.3 seconds remaining in the third period. He also had as assist on Slava Kozlov's power-play goal in the second period, but was unable to get the puck past Burke in the shootout.

The Thrashers played most of the game without goalie Kari Lehtonen, who left with a sprained left ankle with 3:28 left in the first period. He was replaced by backup Mike Dunham, who gave up a second-period goal to Martin St. Louis but played well enough to keep the Thrashers in the game.

Lehtonen was injured when he dropped to his knees to make a stop on Chris Dingman's shot and the goalie's leg got tangled with Dingman, who fell into the net after being nudged from behind by Thrashers defenseman Greg de Vries.

"It was the biggest game of the year and I came out after 15 minutes, so it was very tough," Lehtonen said.

"You never want to see that happen, especially right now with the position we are in," said Dunham, who stopped 12 of 13 shots. "But those things do happen and you just have to be ready."

Ryan Craig's power-play goal gave Tampa Bay a 1-0 lead. St. Louis snapped a 1-1 tie late in the second period when he tapped in an errant shot by Richards that missed the net and caromed off the end board.

The play gave Richards an assist in 10 consecutive games - a franchise record.

Kovalchuk became the first 50-goal scorer in Thrashers history when he beat Burke from the right circle after Atlanta pulled its goalie and put an extra skater on the ice.

"They probably deserved to score a goal there," Burke said. "They battled and made it really tough on us. But we found a way to win. That's the bottom line."

Notes: Lightning D Pavel Kubina (lower body injury) returned after missing the previous three games. ... Lehtonen started his 28th consecutive game, the second-longest streak in the NHL this season. New Jersey's Martin Brodeur started 31 straight games from Dec. 31-March 23. ... With his 15th goal, Craig tied Rob Zamuner (1992-93) and Daymond Langkow (1996-97) for the second-most goal by a Tampa Bay rookie. Richards set the team record with 21 in 2000-01. ... The Lightning tied a team record with their seventh consecutive home victory.

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