ATLANTA – Alexei Zhitnik had only one goal in his first 56 games this season, but the Atlanta Thrashers defenceman knew what to do with the puck when he saw Tampa Bay’s Flip Kuba without a stick.
Zhitnik easily manoeuvred past Kuba with a fake and beat goaltender Johan Holmqvist with a shot 1:26 into overtime to give the Thrashers a 2-1 win over the Lightning on Saturday night in a key Southeast Division game.
Zhitnik seized the opening after Kuba broke his stick on a shot at the other end of the ice.
“I saw he didn’t have a stick,” Zhitnik said. “I was going full speed. I don’t think (Holmqvist) was expecting that. I made a move and shot the puck. … It was a pretty shot, too.”
Zhitnik scored on his only shot of the game for his first goal since Dec. 29 against Boston.
“He’s had a few games where he’s shown his offensive side, but not that many,” Thrashers coach Don Waddell said. “I think he’s been concentrating more on taking care of his own zone. We know he’s capable of doing that, and obviously tonight was the biggest goal he’s scored all year.”
The Thrashers moved into a first-place tie with Carolina in the tight division but could have dropped to fourth with a regulation loss.
“Two points against a division team is really good,” Zhitnik said. “It’s like a roller-coaster, in first place one day and in second place the next day. We’re trying to find some consistency and put a winning streak together.”
Holmqvist was left bowed forward on his knees in dejection, his helmet touching the ice, after the game-winner.
Holmqvist and the Lightning shut out the Thrashers for the first two periods.
Kari Lehtonen stopped 27 shots for Atlanta, which recovered after back-to-back home losses to Philadelphia and Vancouver.
“These (division games) are more important than the other games,” Lehtonen said. “It was good to come back and get two points.”
The Thrashers ended Tampa Bay’s six-game winning streak on the road.
The Lightning are still last in the Southeast, but haven’t lost hope.
“We’ll be right there,” Lightning forward Martin St. Louis said. “Everybody is beating everybody.
“They wouldn’t have gotten that scoring chance if (Kuba) hadn’t broken his stick. We played very resilient. … We played a good game. We had our chances.”
Vincent Lecavalier, second in the NHL with 72 points, gave Tampa Bay a 1-0 lead with a second-period goal. He lifted a backhand shot over Lehtonen at 12:48.
The Thrashers were held without a shot on their only power play of the second period and managed just four shots in the period.
“It wasn’t our prettiest win, that’s for sure,” Waddell said. “I thought we were really good in the first, but the second period was our worst period in six, seven or eight games. I didn’t think we were very good at all. We turned the puck over a lot, we gave up a lot of opportunities. We weren’t great in the third, but we battled back.”
Atlanta finally answered with a tying slap shot by Marian Hossa 4:18 into the third period.
The Thrashers’ best scoring chance in the first two periods came with 3:38 left in the opening frame. Hossa passed from the right circle to Slava Kozlov, who appeared to beat Holmqvist with a shot that set off the red light behind the net. A video review showed the puck bounced up and away from the net without crossing the line.
Kozlov delivered a third-period assist on Hossa’s tying goal. Eric Perrin, stationed between Hossa and the net, screened Holmqvist’s view of the shot.
After the goal by Hossa, the best chance of avoiding overtime came when Tampa Bay’s Craig MacDonald hit the post on a shot with about 4 minutes left in the third period.
There were only three penalties in regulation, including two against Atlanta, and none in the third period.
Notes: Thrashers D Niclas Havelid returned after missing a game with flu symptoms. … Atlanta LW Ilya Kovalchuk recorded one shot. … Attendance was 18,879, the Thrashers’ sixth sellout of the season. … Tampa Bay D Brad Lukowich sustained a lower body injury.