Marc Denis might never play a more difficult game.
Consider the Lightning goaltender faced just 11 shots in the first 65 minutes of Thursday night's matchup with the Thrashers and then made three breakaway saves in a shootout to give Tampa Bay a 3-2 victory at Philips Arena in the season-opener for both teams.
Vinny Lecavalier's backhander that beat Kari Lehtonen was the lone Tampa Bay shootout goal.
"I enjoy the shootout when I'm on this side of it," said Denis, who was 3-1 in shootouts last season, the first with the shootout. "When I'm on the other side of it, it's the worst thing in hockey."
It was a character victory for Tampa Bay, which fell behind 2-0 in the first period on two power-play goals but tied the score on two goals by Ryan Craig, the second at 2:18 of the third period.
Last season, the Lightning earned only 10 points in 28 games when trailing after two periods. Two came on overtime losses.
But the credit goes to Denis, who in his Lightning debut had relatively little to do as Tampa Bay allowed just five shots after the first period and tied a team record for fewest shots allowed in any game and one on the road.
The goaltender stopped Vyacheslav Kozlov, Jon Sim and the dangerous Ilya Kovalchuk during the shootout.
The Lightning outshot the Thrashers 8-6 in the first period but came out of it down 2-0 thanks to the two power-play goals.
The Lightning got the first shot of the game, on the power play, and it was a tester from Craig in the slot that forced Lehtonen to make a right-arm save.
Tampa Bay had a great chance 5:28 into the period on the penalty kill as Marty St. Louis drove the slot on a breakaway. But his wrist shot clipped Lehtonen's right leg pad and went wide.
The Thrashers went ahead 1-0 at 7:06 when Scott Mellanby, who was left all alone in front of the net, barely redirected Marian Hossa's pass from the side boards and nudged it past Denis.
Denis made a left-leg stop of Hossa's breakaway with 8:37 remaining. But 34 seconds later, with the Thrashers on a five-on-three power play, Hossa roofed a shot over Denis' left leg for a 2-0 lead.
Denis had no chance as Hossa was left alone at the side of the net.
The Lightning players seemed to get their legs under them in the second period and outshot the Thrashers 6-4 but cut the deficit only by one.
The goal came on the power play 4:01 into the period when Craig deflected Brad Richards' shot from the blue line.
That was about 10 seconds after Richards clanked a shot from the blue line off the outside post.
Lecavalier created a chance with 10:45 remaining when he had the puck behind the net, carried it out front and backhanded it toward the net, where it bounced around legs of players from both teams before deflecting away.
Defenseman Paul Ranger had a chance with 8:11 left when he and Richards had a two-on-one while killing a penalty.
A second Thrasher was about to get into the play when Ranger let go a big slap shot from just inside the blue line that Lehtonen tracked and stopped off his body.
Denis, who must have been stiffening up with as little work as he got, came up with a big stop with 3:45 left and Atlanta on another power play. Kozlov wound and fired a one-timer from the top of the slot that Denis stopped with his glove.
"I was really disappointed," Mellanby said. "I thought we came out and had them on their heels."
Marc Denis improved to 4-1 in shootouts and has stopped 17 of 21 shots: The date, opponent, shootout result and saves and shots in the shootout:
DATE OPP RES SVS SH
Thursday Atl. 1-0 W 3 3
April 7, 2006 Det. 1-0 L 4 5
Feb 12, 2006 Cal 2-0 W 2 2
Feb. 3, 2006 Edm. 4-3 W 5 8
Jan. 20, 2006 St.L 1-0 W 3 3
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