It’s bad enough that the Thrashers fell behind early to Tampa Bay.
It’s even worse that it happened against a goaltender they have never beaten.
Tampa Bay won a 2-1 decision over the Thrashers on Tuesday at Philips Arena as Antero Niittymaki improved to 16-0-0 lifetime against the franchise.
The Thrashers fell to 24-23-8 (56 points) and have lost two consecutive games.
Thrashers captain Ilya Kovlachuk, who is the subject of mounting trade talk, smashed his stick over the net as time expired. The forward did not speak to the media following the game. He was said to have dressed and left the arena by the time the locker room was opened.
“I’m sure all this stuff bothers him a little bit, but he’s a professional and is playing hard for the Atlanta Thrashers right now,” Thrashers coach John Anderson said.
Kovalchuk has one goal in the past six games.
The Thrashers dropped behind the Lightning 23-21-11 (57 points) in the Eastern Conference standings and are tied for 10th place with the Canadiens. In the crowded conference playoff race, they are one point behind three teams tied for the seventh through ninth spots (pending the Rangers' late game against the Kings).
“It’s going to be like this the rest of the way,” Thrashers defenseman Ron Hainsey said. “The games are close. There’s not really a big difference. It’s going to be who capitalizes on their chances. That was the difference tonight. They got two, and we got one.”
Niittymaki made 26 saves in the victory. He has won both games he started against the Thrashers this season. Atlanta is 1-2-2 against their Southeast Division rival this season.
The Lightning scored two first-period goals to take an early lead. Stephane Veilleux opened the scoring 9:37 into the game. He took control of the puck and raced down center ice. Veilleux dished to Alex Tanguay to his left, who returned the puck quickly, setting up a shot that beat Thrashers goaltender Ondrej Pavelec to the top right corner of the goal.
Martin St. Louis gave the Lightning a 2-0 lead 3:05 later with a shot well to the left of Pavelec. It was his 17th goal of the season and his fourth in the past four games. He also has an assist in the streak.
“After the first period, I felt great, but it wasn’t enough,” said Pavelec, who finished with 22 saves. “It’s disappointing because it was a huge game for us tonight. … We’ve got big games coming up. If we want to make the playoffs, we’ve got to win those games coming up.
“It’s hard to come back against those guys. They have great players and a great goalie. We have to be ready all 60 minutes.”
The Thrashers answered with a second-period goal. Defenseman Mark Popovic, playing for the first time in 28 games, blasted a shot from the point. Todd White tipped the puck, which hit Niittymaki in the head, rolled down his back and into the net. The goal, at the 2:46 mark of the period, was White’s fifth of the season. He now has a point in each of the past three games.
“Every day is a battle,” Anderson said. “I’m more the type of guy that the cup is half-full. We are still right there. I thought we played a decent game. A couple of mistakes cost us. Nothing is out of the question. Sometimes you get games like that where you can’t get a goal by him. The curse continues, I guess. It’s a little frustrating.”
The Thrashers continued to struggle on the power play. They were 0-for-3 on Tuesday. The are now 7-for-81 over the past 20 games.
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