-- Inexplicable is the word -- both for the Tampa Bay Lightning
's mastery over the Atlanta Thrashers
and Steven Stamkos
' success against them.
The Lightning got both goals in regulation from Stamkos - his League-leading 36th and 37th -- in a 3-2 shootout win at Philips Arena that kept the Lightning one point ahead of Washington for the Southeast Division lead. Tampa Bay beat the Thrashers for the 10th straight time, the longest current streak in the League by one team over another.
Dominic Moore scored the deciding goal in the fourth round of the shootout after Bryan Little had scored for Atlanta in the first round and Adam Hall scored in the second round for Tampa Bay. Dwayne Roloson (27 saves) stopped Nigel Dawes in the fourth round to help Tampa Bay to its second straight win, both by shootout.
In 17 career games against his division rival, Stamkos has 15 goals.
"I don't know what it is," Stamkos said of his success against the Thrashers. "It's one of those times where the hockey gods are on your side."
Lightning coach Guy Boucher has a theory.
"I think he crashes the net a lot and today that's what he did," said Boucher, noting that both of Stamkos' goals came on rebounds or in a high-traffic area. "He wants to fight to get ugly goals and that's why he gets them."
As for the Lightning's success against Atlanta, Thrashers coach Craig Ramsay, whose team has lost five times to Tampa Bay this season and has only one more chance for a win when the teams meet at St. Pete Times Forum on Sunday, was at a loss to explain it.
"You have those runs against a team," he said. "I remember when I was playing we had a team for two years we couldn't beat in a number of games and we should have. This is a very talented team that we played against. We had some pretty golden opportunities that we didn't score."
Among those golden opportunities was one late in overtime when Dustin Byfuglien, second in the League in scoring among defenseman but pointless in a season-long seven straight games, skated in on Roloson one-on-one with a step on a defender. Byfuglien tried to go around Roloson but the goalie dove to the ice and poked the puck off Byfuglien's stick.
"If I miss it," Roloson said, "he walks around me and it's in the net."
Stamkos scored his second goal of the game just 32 seconds into the third period to tie it at 2-2. Pavel Kubina shot the puck off the backboards - a play the Lightning practice - and Stamkos backhanded the puck from a steep angle over Thrashers goalie Ondrej Pavelec and into the net.
Atlanta led the game twice but could not hold it. Once an offensive defenseman but now a professional shot-blocker, Thrashers defenseman Brent Sopel picked up an assist on the Thrashers' power play goal at 14:12 of the second period. Roloson stopped Sopel's initial shot from the blue line and then Nik Antropov's rebound attempt but he could not make the third stop on Anthony Stewart, who knocked in his 10th of the season to give Atlanta a 2-1 lead.
Niclas Bergfors got the Thrashers on the board first at 5:26 of the first period with his 10th of the season and third in the last seven games. He turned from the slot and passed the puck to defenseman Freddy Meyer, in for Zach Bogosian who spent his second straight game as a healthy scratch, and Meyer put a hard shot on Roloson. Bergfors converted the rebound for the goal.
Tampa Bay tied the game with 2:47 left in the period on Stamkos' first goal of the game. Victor Hedman shot the puck from close range amid a bit of a scrum and the puck hit first off Byfuglien then deflected off Stamkos' chest to float over Pavelec's left arm.
Despite the riches of Stamkos, Martin St. Louis and Vincent Lecavalier, Boucher tapped none of them in the shootout, opting instead for defenseman Victor Hedman, Hall, Ryan Malone and Moore. Moore said it was only the third shootout of his career, including a famous one in 2005 when the played for the New York Rangers that went 15 rounds with Marek Malik shooting the puck between his legs to beat Washington.
"He's a big guy," Moore said of Pavelec. "I just tried to get him moving laterally by coming in from an angle."
Moore faked around Pavelec and scored.
Boucher said he acted on "just a feeling" in choosing his shooters.
"Every time I went with my head," he said, "it didn't work."
Atlanta fell to 4-7-3 in its last 14 games, and while it still holds the eighth and final playoff spot in the Eastern Conference, divisional rival Carolina crept within two points with two games in hand by beating the New York Rangers 4-1 on Thursday. Seconds into overtime, Little was hauled down from behind as he chased a puck in Tampa's zone by Mattias Ohlund. There was no call but Ramsay said he thought Atlanta deserved a power play.
"We played well and we battled and we got one point instead of two," he said. "That is a frustrating thing but we have to stay focused on the fact that we did get a point and we have another opportunity coming up."
If not, Atlanta will have to wait until next year.