If the Tampa Bay Lightning are going to mount a run at a playoff spot, improved play on the road would help. Having Antero Niittymaki(notes) in net against the Atlanta Thrashers looks like a good way to accomplish that.
Niittymaki should start for the Lightning on Tuesday night in an effort to improve to 16-0-0 in his career against the Thrashers.
Tampa Bay (22-21-11) is 8-15-5 on the road, and its 21 points rank only better than Minnesota (20), Carolina (16) and Edmonton (16). Those struggles away from home have the Lightning tied with Boston for 11th in the tightly packed Eastern Conference, one point behind the ninth-place tie between Montreal and Atlanta and two back of the New York Rangers and Florida for the final two playoff positions.
The Lightning have won only four times in their last 16 contests away from Tampa, getting outscored 61-38. They lost as the visitor again Sunday, as Mike Smith(notes) gave up a goal to Alex Ovechkin(notes) with 6:26 to play in a 3-2 loss at Washington. The game-clinching tally came after Tampa Bay’s Martin St. Louis(notes) scored and then setup Steven Stamkos(notes) to erase a two-goal third-period deficit.
“It’s devastating, but we’ve got to grab some positive out of this third period, some momentum going into the next game,” said St. Louis, who has three goals and one assist over his last three games. “I thought we showed a lot of character coming back like that.”
Smith will likely move to the bench Tuesday in favor of Niittymaki, who has won all 15 of his meetings with the Thrashers (24-22-8) while posting a 1.79 goals-against average with one shutout. He’s won 10 games at Philips Arena behind a 1.61 GAA.
Niittymaki beat Atlanta again Jan. 23, making 37 saves and stopping four shootout attempts in a 2-1 win. The victory was his second over the Thrashers since signing with the Lightning after spending his first five NHL seasons with Philadelphia.
Spurred by Niittymaki, the Lightning have won three in a row over the Thrashers since falling 6-3 at Atlanta to open the season Oct. 3.
Atlanta also saw a rally fall short in its last game Saturday. It overcame a two-goal deficit in the second period before Johan Hedberg(notes) was beaten by Jason Arnott(notes) 7 seconds into the third for a 4-3 loss at Nashville.
“We were not sharp. It was as simple as that,” coach John Anderson said.
The Thrashers could use some increased production from Ilya Kovalchuk(notes), who ranks among the league leaders with 31 goals and leads the club with 58 points. The star left wing has one goal and one assist in his last five games - three losses - after posting five and four, respectively, in the previous five.
Kovalchuk has seven goals and four assists in 15 games against Niittymaki but no points in the two meetings this season. However, he has three goals and two assists in the other two matchups against Tampa Bay with Smith in net.
Kovalchuk has 29 goals and 22 assists in 48 games against the Lightning.