Most of the Lightning players had refused to call it a knockout opportunity. But they looked like a team interested in making sure the pesky Thrashers caused them no more annoyances this season, be that in the Southeast Division or Eastern Conference playoffs.
Led by two goals and an assist by Fredrik Modin and a goal and assist by Brad Richards, the Lightning sent the gasping Thrashers 11 points behind in the division with a 5-2 victory Saturday at the St. Pete Times Forum.
You still won't hear anyone gloating.
"What it means is we have an 11-point lead. That's about it," said Richards, who has four goals and six assists in his past five games. "It was nice to have a division game here that really means something in the standings, but we have to back all those wins up and take the next step to really distance ourselves."
Tampa Bay won its fifth in a row and earned a point for the 12th time in 13 games, dropping Atlanta to 0-4-2 in its past six.
In a typically entertaining game between the budding rivals, the pace was brisk and momentum always one sharp pass away from shifting. That was until the Lightning broke open a one-goal game with two scores 25 seconds apart late during the second period.
After subduing a prolonged Thrasher offensive, the Lightning settled into a strong forechecking mode and took a 3-1 lead with 2:42 left.
Dave Andreychuk fired a shot from the side of the net that hit defenseman Ivan Majesky on the right thigh and bounced past Pasi Nurminen. It was his 11th goal of the season.
The public address man was not halfway through announcing the goal to the crowd of 20,762 before Richards took a pass from Modin and swooped through the slot to score his 12th for a 4-1 lead.
The margin seemed to make that one crisp Atlanta pass less threatening, but 26-goal scorer Ilya Kovalchuk and newly returned sniper Dany Heat-ley kept things interesting. So did a goaltending effort from John Grahame that was mostly effective but occasionally maddening.
Seven minutes into the game, he skated to the corner and fired an attempted clear into the feet of the charging Slava Kozlov. His quick shot zipped through the outstretched legs of defenseman Cory Sarich and hit the post.
"He beat me five-hole," Sarich said, smiling.
Zdenek Blatny's goal 2:41 into the second bounced off Grahame's catching glove, rolled up his arm and into the net to cut the Lightning's lead to 2-1. Shawn McEachern scored the other goal 5:01 into the third to cut the lead to 4-2 before Ruslan Fedotenko's empty-netter with 23 seconds left sealed it.
"He's going to make mistakes," coach John Tortorella said of Grahame.
"That's the way he plays. He's ugly. He's ugly at times, but he's done nothing but win for us of late. You see some of the mistakes he made, but he made a couple real nice plays late to get the puck out."
Tampa Bay's early energy translated into a franchise-record 23 shots _ by 14 players _ during the first period and Modin's 16th and 17th goals. Modin gave the Lightning a 1-0 lead on the power play at 11:18 when he tipped down a Darryl Sydor shot. It became 2-0 when he wristed in a Richards assist with 48 seconds left.
Four other players deserved assists on the power-play goal for providing the blueprint for beating Atlanta.
So effective and persistent were Martin Cibak, Chris Dingman, Dmitry Afanasenkov, Dan Boyle and Sydor forechecking that Atlanta could not clear the puck for almost a minute, forcing Francis Lessard to pull down Cibak in the crease at 9:57to draw a holding-the-stick penalty.
"You try hard," Cibak said. "You don't have too many shifts in every game.
"So you try to bring the energy, especially in a game like this where we wanted to play very hard."