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Lightning tighten grip on last playoff spot with shootout win

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."

Game 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.