ATLANTA – Ending the season with a victory was no consolation to Kari Lehtonen.
When the Atlanta Thrashers reported to training camp, their No. 1 goaltender thought his team was a lock to return to the playoffs.
“It’s sad. The way we played all year, we should be glad it’s over,” Lehtonen said. “It’s really hard right now.”
Colby Armstrong scored the go-ahead goal late in the third period and the Thrashers added two empty-netters in the final minute of a 4-1 victory over the Tampa Bay Lightning on Saturday night.
The Lightning, who tied Los Angeles with an NHL-low 71 points, finished in last place to give them the best chance of winning the draft lottery this summer.
For an eighth-year veteran such as Martin St. Louis, it was too soon to look ahead and discount Tampa Bay’s terrible season, not after the Lightning are missing the playoffs after four straight appearances.
“We dug ourselves a hole,” St. Louis said. “This year, there were expectations for a good season. For some reason, we couldn’t put it together.”
Atlanta, another lottery team, wasn’t much better. The Thrashers, with 76 points, had the second-worst record in the Eastern Conference, finished 29th overall. The St. Louis Blues, 3-0 winners Saturday over Columbus, have 77 points with one game remaining.
Bobby Holik’s 15th goal gave the Thrashers a 1-0 lead with a wrister from the left circle 5:48 into the first.
Mathieu Darche tied it with his seventh goal. Moving into the crease to block Lehtonen’s view on the power play, Darche redirected Filip Kuba’s shot from the right circle 3:50 into the second.
Armstrong’s 13th goal, coming on a wraparound that beat the glove side of goalie Mike Smith, made it 2-1.
Jim Slater and Bryan Little scored the empty-netters.
Lehtonen stopped 30 of 31 shots to improve to 17-22-5, while Smith dropped to 15-19-0.
“When things go bad, it’s just bad,” Smith said. “It was a meaningless game, but the guys played their hearts out.”
Tampa Bay was by far the NHL’s worst team on the road, going 11-24-6. Atlanta ranked 28th in home games, going 19-19-3
This season marked the third time the Lightning had the NHL’s worst record, but first since 1998-99.
Lehtonen believes the Thrashers shouldn’t feel much better about their performance, even though he was pleased that his defence continued to play hard.
“We took a couple of penalties in the second, but we were able to hang in there,” Lehtonen said. “It’s a lot more fun to get the win.”
Atlanta coach Don Waddell is expected to step down and perhaps turn the job over to top assistant Brad McCrimmon. Waddell likely will return as general manager.
“It was a disappointing season,” he said. “It is important to give our young guys ice time to help our future. Kari was solid tonight, and we think we have a bunch of good, young players. I think we’ll be in good position to add some youth next year.”
Notes: Vincent Lecavalier didn’t travel with the team to Atlanta after suffering a dislocated shoulder and a torn labrum Thursday in Washington. He soon will undergo surgery that will require 12-15 weeks of rehab. … Each team had just two victories in its previous nine games, but the Thrashers won two of three, both coming against Tampa Bay. … The Lightning ended the season with four straight losses.