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Antero Niittymaki improves to 16-0 against Atlanta; Tampa Bay tops Thrashers 2-1

ATLANTA - Ilya Kovalchuk couldn't break Antero Niittymaki's "curse" on the Atlanta Thrashers. Instead, the Thrashers captain broke his stick in frustration.

Niittymaki stopped 26 shots for his 16th straight win over Atlanta and the Tampa Bay Lightning beat the Thrashers 2-1 on Tuesday night for a rare road victory.

Stephane Veilleux and Martin St. Louis scored first-period goals and Niittymaki protected the lead, giving up only a second-period goal to Todd White.

"Sometimes you get a game like that where you can't get a goal behind," Thrashers coach John Anderson said. "The curse continues, I guess. A little frustrating."

Kovalchuk, the Thrashers' star who is the subject of trade rumours, broke his stick against the net at the end of the game. He has no goals in the three games against Niittymaki this season.

"You have to be aware of where he is," Niittymaki said of Kovalchuk. "They look for him all the time. You have to be ready.

"He didn't have any great shots."

Niittymaki improved to 13-9-5 overall this season. He is 5-1-1 in his last seven games.

"He has played very well for us," St. Louis said. "He made some big saves in the second period."

The Lightning improved to 4-1 against the Thrashers this season with their fourth straight win in the series, including three victories with Niittymaki in the net.

Niittymaki, in his first season with the Lightning after five with Philadelphia, improved to 11-0 at Philips Arena.

"It's just another building," Niittymaki said. "I don't think about it. I don't think you can win them all. We'll have to see what happens next time."

Kovalchuk, the Thrashers' career leader in goals and assists, can become an unrestricted free agent on July 1 and is the subject of trade rumours. Atlanta general manager Don Waddell attended the Los Angeles Kings game at New Jersey on Sunday and was in Philadelphia last week scouting the Flyers and Islanders for potential trades.

Kovalchuk was not available for comment after the game.

Anderson said Waddell and Kovalchuk have worked to keep the negotiations and trade speculation from becoming a distraction.

"Quite honestly, I've got to commend again Don and Kovy," Anderson said. "They have kept the negotiations behind closed doors. They're doing a wonderful job, and Kovy comes out and plays hard every day.

"I'm sure all the stuff probably bothers him a little bit, but he's a professional and he's playing hard for the Atlanta Thrashers right now."

Tampa Bay snapped a two-game losing streak and improved to 9-15-5 in road games. The Lightning began the night with only 21 points in road games, the fourth fewest in the NHL.

"We're in a playoff mode right now," St. Louis said. "It was good to get the win in regulation. It was big because they didn't get a point."

The Thrashers have lost two straight after making a brief appearance at sixth place in the tight Eastern Conference standings. They fell to 11th - one point behind Tampa Bay.

"It's difficult, but we're still right there," Anderson said. "I thought we played a decent game. A couple mistakes cost us."

The Lightning led 2-0 despite recording only three shots.

Veilleux's shot from the left circle gave Tampa Bay its first goal midway through the opening period. St. Louis, set up by a pass from Steven Stamkos, scored the second goal past lunging goalie Ondrej Pavelec. Stamkos faked a shot before earning the assist.

Atlanta defenceman Mark Popovic, making his return after missing 27 games because of a broken foot, earned an assist on White's goal 2:46 into the second period to cut the lead to 2-1.

Pavelec stopped 22 shots for Atlanta.

NOTES: Niittymaki was also in goal for the Lightning's 2-1 home win over the Thrashers on Jan. 23 and a 4-3 win at Atlanta on Nov. 22. ... Thrashers F Slava Kozlov was a healthy scratch for the fifth straight game. ... Thrashers D Pavel Kubina played in his 800th NHL game.


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