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After surge, one goal left: put Atlanta away

Tim Taylor, for one, is ready to put the Atlanta Thrashers away and refocus the Lightning's energy beyond the Southeast Division.

Few others are as willing to speak of the opportunity the Southeast leader has tonight when it plays the second-place Thrashers at the St. Pete Times Forum, but it's there to see.

After Atlanta (21-24-6-2) lost at home against Toronto on Friday night, the Lightning (25-16-6-3) holds a nine-point lead with three fewer games played. What was an eight-point Thrashers lead in the division a month ago has swung the Lightning's way after Tampa Bay went 11-4-1-2 since a 3-1 loss to the Thrashers on Dec. 26. Establishing a double-digit lead in points could be too much to overcome, even for a Thrasher team that has weathered the emotional tumult of the death of player Dan Snyder and the loss and return this week of All-Star forward Dany Heatley.

The time, Taylor said, is right to finish the Thrashers.

"If we win (today), we're 11 up with three in hand and that's huge for us with the schedule we have coming up with a lot of home games where we can gain even more ground," he said. "We kind of surpassed them on the road and that was a huge climb and now the challenge is to see how many points we can separate ourselves from the next team and it may be Atlanta, it may be (third-place) Florida. You don't know."

Not that it's going to be easy, especially against a team with two wins in three meetings with the Lightning this season.

"They've got a huge adrenaline rush right now with Heatley coming back," he said, "and any time you play a hard-working team like that, they're a scary team."

So building that unbridgeable gap is even more imperative. And there is no harm, Taylor said, in a good team thinking about its future as long as it takes care of today.

"As you set your goals, you want them to keep going higher," he said. "We want to keep playing well and see how high a seed we can get. We know what it was like to play in the playoffs and how fun it was and that's what we're striving for. That's why we made this push.

"Now we have the luxury of going out and controlling our own destiny and playing the best hockey we can and maybe get home-ice advantage throughout the playoffs. But the first step obviously is to continue to play well and play well throughout."

After watching the Lightning find its scoring touch and erase the eight-point deficit, coach John Tortorella is too aware of how fortunes can reverse when a team thinks very far ahead.

"The way this league is, don't even get into that with me," he said in response to the knockout theory. "This is a very important game for both teams, obviously, because (in) the standings we're together there and we understand that, but it's such a big part of the season left to be played we're taking it game by game."

Vinny Lecavalier won't call this game a knockout opportunity, but he appreciates the relevance.

"It's a huge game for them," he said. "It's a four-point game, really. They're probably thinking if they win this game, they're right back in it, so we definitely have to slam them down and show them we're ready and we're the ones who are going to finish first in our division.

"If we show them that, if we win this game, it will be great for us."

Establishing a double-digit lead would create an extra mental obstacle for the Thrashers, Taylor said.

"If we can get to the next level, double digits, if they're trying to catch you, especially with games in hand, it's hard for them to catch you," he said. "They know we have to go on something like an 0-for-8 stretch and they have to win eight in a row. You're always trying to break down opponents mentally and physically and if you can do that, knowing they have to strive to make a huge push to even catch you and you have to falter, that makes it hard on them."