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Stamkos hat trick lifts Lightning into first in East

by John Manasso
ATLANTA -- The Tampa Bay Lightning had only lost one game in regulation through their first six entering Friday's Southeast Division matchup with the Atlanta Thrashers, but such is the intensity of first-year coach Guy Boucher that he instructed his team to play the first five minutes as if they were the last five minutes of Game 7 in a playoff series.

Mission accomplished.

In those first five minutes, the Lightning earned a 5-on-3 and converted it on their way to building a three-goal lead. In the end, Steven Stamkos finished with 3 goals, including an empty-netter while sitting on his derriere, and the Lightning also got some quality penalty killing for a 5-2 win over the Thrashers.

"The one focus we had was we were going to play a five-minute game," Boucher said. "That's all. We didn't care about the rest of the game. … I think we came out strong and I think our leaders really did everything they needed to do in the room to make sure the guys were on the same page with the energy we needed to come out strong."

The Lightning (5-1-1) had lost in overtime 3-2 at home on Thursday and their power play, ranked second best in the NHL entering Friday's game, failed on all four tries.

By the end of the first period on Friday, the Lightning had converted 2 of 4 power plays. After Ben Eager went off for cross-checking at 2:42, Jim Slater tripped Stamkos in Tampa Bay's zone 11 seconds later.

Defenseman Brett Clark scored on a wrist shot from the right circle for the Lightning at 3:10.

Then, critically, when Atlanta had a 5-on-3 of its own, the Thrashers could not convert and Vincent Lecavalier scored one second after the second penalty expired to give Tampa a 2-0 lead with 3:55 left in the period.

Thrashers defenseman Johnny Oduya (minus-2 on the night) lost control of the puck to Tampa's Sean Bergenheim as Oduya tried to skate out from behind his goal line. Bergenheim passed in front to Lecavalier, whose shot deflected off a skate past Chris Mason's left pad.

"It's bad luck for Mason but it kind of redirected," Lecavalier said.

So not only do the Lightning have one of the League's top power plays, but they also rank in the top 10 in penalty killing as well.

"Yeah, that was big -- penalty kill's been great all year," said Lightning goalie Mike Smith, who made 28 saves. "We just got it done, and that's what those guys have done all season long and will continue to do that. Guys have worked hard on that, guys are blocking shots. Our (defense) is clearing out guys in front and doing a great job there, so I think we'll just keep building on that."

In fact, the Lightning blocked 20 shots to only 5 for Atlanta.

Tampa Bay left the first 20 minutes with a 3-0 lead after Stamkos converted a trademark one-timer from the left circle on a feed from Lecavalier at 17:50 for Tampa Bay's second power-play goal.

In three of Atlanta's four losses, they have fallen behind by a deficit of at least 3-0 less than 26 minutes into the game. They fell behind Buffalo 3-0 less than 23 minutes into a 4-1 loss on Wednesday.

"When you put teams on the power play that often, they're going to score, especially teams as talented as they are," Thrashers coach Craig Ramsay said.

Goalie Peter Mannino started the second period for Atlanta after Mason (13 saves on 16 shots) had played every minute of every game since relieving Ondrej Pavelec at 2:25 of the first period of the season opener after Pavelec fainted and suffered a concussion. Mason is expected to start Saturday at Washington.

Jim Slater cut the deficit to 3-1, putting in a rebound of Andrew Ladd's shot at 8:07 of the second but Atlanta's sputtering power play proved costly. The Thrashers failed to connect for the sixth time in the game on the power play and 17 seconds after Teddy Purcell got out of the box for serving Smith's tripping call, Stamkos took advantage of an out-of-position Mannino with an unassisted goal at 17:22.

"Things are going well right now," Stamkos said. "It was a good bounce-back game. "We just had to make sure we started strong this game."

Dustin Byfuglien scored his second of the season with a blast from the right point to make it 4-2 at 13:36 of the third, earning Atlanta its first power-play goal on its eighth try.

Atlanta pulled Mannino, who stopped 15 of 16 shots, with 1:58 left in regulation down by two goals.

But Stamkos iced it with a slow clearing play from just on the Lightning's side of the red line while seated on his pants for an empty-net goal. That gave him a hat trick with 32 seconds left in regulation on a play that Smith said would have resulted in an icing call for most other players.

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