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Sim connects as Thrashers edge the Lightning 3-2 in shootout

That's fine with the Thrashers.

Playing before a sellout crowd eager to celebrate Atlanta's first division championship, the Thrashers and Lightning traded punches - literally, at times - before Jonathan Sim's shootout goal gave Atlanta a 3-2 win in the final regular-season game for both teams on Saturday night.

"It was a great game to watch," Tampa Bay coach John Tortorella said.

Said Atlanta coach Bob Hartley: "From one end to the other, what a showcase of talent."

Tampa Bay won five of eight games against Atlanta this season, including two wins in overtime and one in a shootout.

Evidence of the high intensity level came when Atlanta's Eric Boulton and Tampa Bay's Nick Tarnasky drew five-minute penalties for fighting midway through the third period.

Players traded shoves in several brief encounters following the fight.

The teams combined for 79 shots through regulation and overtime. Atlanta's Kari Lehtonen stopped 34 shots before the shootout and deflected Eric Perrin's last shot in the shootout to clinch the win.

"We lost the home opener to them in a shootout, and we didn't want that to happen again," Lehtonen said.

Tampa Bay beat Atlanta, also in a 3-2 shootout, on Oct. 5. Saturday night's loss was only the second in 12 shootouts this season for the Lightning.

Atlanta's first-round playoff opponent will be the New York Rangers. As the Southeast Division champions, Atlanta is the No. 3 seed and the Rangers are the No. 6 seed.

In order to win the No. 6 seed in the Eastern Conference, Tampa Bay needed to beat the Thrashers and have the Rangers lose in regulation to Pittsburgh on Saturday.

Instead, the Lightning are the No. 7 seed and will face the New Jersey Devils.

Johan Holmqvist stopped 39 shots in regulation and overtime for Tampa Bay.

"Both goalies made some unbelievable saves," Hartley said.

Brad Richards and Vaclav Prospal scored in the shootout for Tampa Bay. Ilya Kovalchuk, who also scored in regulation, and Keith Tkachuk scored for Atlanta.

There was a delay in the shootout when Atlanta's Eric Belanger missed on a shot and broke the glass behind the net. The glass had to be replaced before Sim could attempt his game-winner.

Atlanta clinched the division with a 4-1 win at Carolina on Friday night, but Hartley treated this game like any other.

"We wanted to finish the season on a good swing," Hartley said. "I felt we generated lots of momentum. Our guys deserve lots of credit."

Atlanta's fans, who normally arrive late, began filling the stands long before the start of the game, giving the players the first indication the city is warming up for the playoffs.

"I normally go out 30 minutes before warmups and the stands are empty," Lehtonen said. "Tonight when I went out there were about 5,000 fans already there. It was amazing and we really appreciate that."

Tampa Bay led 2-0 after goals by Prospal in the first period and Filip Kuba in the second.

Prospal's 14th goal came 1:19 into the game after he took a pass from Vincent Lecavalier across the ice and shot from the left circle.

Kuba pushed the lead to 2-0 by firing a shot between Lehtonen's legs with 12:22 left in the second period.

Kovalchuk cut the Lightning's lead to 2-1 with a power-play goal with 2:19 left in the second period. Kovalchuk, standing in the left circle, paused before shooting as Holmqvist fell forward, leaving an open net.

The Thrashers pulled even less than a minute into the third period on Slava Kozlov's 28th goal.

Marian Hossa assisted on Atlanta's first two goals, giving him 100 points for the first time in his career.

Atlanta fans chanted "Hossa! Hossa!" after he reached the milestone with his assist on Kozlov's game-tying goal less than a minute into the third period.

"I tried not to feel the pressure when I got two points away from 100," Hossa said.

Hossa, one of the Atlanta veterans with playoff experience, said winning the final regular-season game was important, even though the team's No. 3 seed in the playoffs already was set.

"It's a big win," Hossa said. "It may mean nothing, but it means something for us."

Notes: Thrashers general manager Don Waddell presented Kozlov with the annual Dan Snyder Memorial Trophy before the game. The trophy is given to the team's unsung hero in honour of Snyder, the former Atlanta player who was killed in a car wreck in 2003. Snyder's parents attended the pre-game ceremony. ... Thrashers captain Scott Mellanby, 40, was held out to rest for the playoffs.


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