GAME: Tampa Bay Lightning (24-20-3) at Atlanta Thrashers (23-19-6).
TIME: Saturday, 7 p.m. EST.
For the Tampa Bay Lightning to overtake the Atlanta Thrashers in the playoff hunt, they need to do one thing: learn to stop Ilya Kovalchuk.
Kovalchuk, the league's goal-scoring leader, and the Thrashers look for their third consecutive win over the defending Stanley Cup champions when they welcome the Lightning to Philips Arena.
The teams have split four games this season with Kovalchuk being the difference in Atlanta's two victories. The top overall pick in the 2001 draft was limited to one assist in losses on Oct. 20 and 29 in which the Thrashers totaled only two goals.
In the next two games, however, Atlanta has scored 11 goals. Kovalchuk has had five goals and three assists in those victories, including a career-high four goals Nov. 11 in a 5-2 win.
"The most important thing is for us to win," Kovalchuk said after that game. "We've got a really good chance to make the playoffs this year, so that's the biggest challenge for us."
An Atlanta win combined with a New Jersey loss will allow the Thrashers to move past the Devils into sixth place in the Eastern Conference playoff race. The top four seeds receive home-ice advantage.
Atlanta returns home after an 8-6 loss Thursday to the Los Angeles Kings. Kovalchuk scored his league-leading 35th goal and Marian Hossa has two goals and added an assist for the Thrashers, whose franchise-record five-game winning streak ended.
Tampa Bay will wrap up a four-game road trip with no worse than a split. The Lightning improved to 2-1 on the swing with a 6-3 win Friday over the Dallas Stars.
"What we've been trying to do is be a tougher team to play against," Lightning coach John Tortorella said. "I thought we played a good, solid road game."
Leading scorer Vaclav Prospal had two assists during a four-goal first period. Rookie center Ryan Craig had a goal and two assists on the night and Sean Burke stopped 25 shots.
"We had to come out with a different mind-set tonight, and we did that, and it really seemed to spark our confidence," said Brad Richards, who opened the game with a short-handed goal.
The Lightning may have Burke start this game. He is 7-0-0 with a 1.86 goals-against average and .933 save percentage in his career against Atlanta.
John Grahame, a selection for the U.S. team at next month's Turin Olympics, has been inconsistent this season against the Thrashers.
Grahame stopped 44 of 46 shots in Tampa Bay's two wins over Atlanta earlier this season. In the two losses, though, he stopped only 51 of 60 shots faced and was pulled after two periods in the setback on Nov. 11.
He also has allowed nearly a goal per game more in his career against Atlanta than Burke.
STANDINGS: Lightning - 51 points, 3rd place, 17 PB, Southeast Division. Thrashers - 52 points, 2nd place, 16 PB, Southeast Division.
TEAM LEADERS: Lightning - Vincent Lecavalier, 19 goals; Prospal, 35 assists and 52 points; Pavel Kubina, 70 PIM. Thrashers - Kovalchuk, 35 goals and 67 points; Marc Savard, 43 assists; Andy Sutton, 78 PIM.
SPECIAL TEAMS (through Jan. 19): Lightning - Power play: 13.5 percent (37 for 274), 27th in NHL. Penalty killing: 81.8 percent (185 for 214), 14th (tied). Thrashers - Power play: 20.5 percent (69 for 336), 4th. Penalty killing: 79.2 percent (243 for 307), 27th.
GOALTENDERS: Lightning - Grahame (17-14-1, 2, 2.86 GAA); Burke (7-5-2, 0 SO, 2.69); Thrashers - Kari Lehtonen (6-2-0, 1, 2.57); Mike Dunham (4-4-1, 1, 2.79).
SEASON SERIES: Tied, 2-2.
LAST MEETING: Nov. 11; Thrashers, 5-2. At Atlanta, Kovalchuk had a natural hat trick in the second period as part of a career-best four-goal game. Prospal had a goal and an assist in the first period for Tampa Bay.
ROAD/HOME RECORDS: Lightning - 12-11-2 on the road; Thrashers - 13-7-4 at home.