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Thrashers clinch playoff spot, now must hold off Lightning for division title

"It's big for our franchise," the Thrashers GM told The Canadian Press on Monday. The Maple Leafs can still tie the Thrashers at 93 points and 41 wins but Atlanta would own the next tiebreaker, winning the season series 3-1.

"We're excited," said Waddell, who jump-started his team with the acquisitions of Keith Tkachuk and Alexei Zhitnik in late February. "It's something we've been playing for all year. . . .

"To me this is a big first step for the franchise, the second one is to try and win the division and third is to try and go deep in the playoffs."

Winning the Southeast Division would hand the Thrashers the No. 3 seed in the Eastern Conference, an important achievement in Waddell's eyes.

"For home ice advantage, for our fans, it would be very, very large," he said. "And let's face it, division banners may not mean a lot in other cities that have a lot of them, but we'd be pretty proud to hang up a banner next year that said we won the division."

The Tampa Bay Lightning begin the week three points back of Atlanta with both clubs having three games left - including a head-to-head matchup in Atlanta to wrap up the season Saturday night.

"We still want to win the division," Lightning GM Jay Feaster said Monday.

The Bolts aren't exactly burning up the stretch run, going 7-7-0 in March.

"But you go back to where we were at the start of the calendar year, we were sub-.500 and the thought of catching Atlanta wasn't even in our vocabulary," Feaster said. "So I think while being only .500 in March was certainly less than what we wanted to be, when you put it into the context of what we did in January and February (18-6-2), I think our second half of the year has been outstanding."

The Lightning have handed the No. 1 goaltending duties from here on in to John Holmqvist after the Swede battled Marc Denis for the job all season long.

"He has really worked hard," Feaster said of the 28-year-old Holmqvist. "And to his credit, he's a guy that had high expectations of himself coming in. When we signed him, his agent told him that last year (Rangers goalie Henrik) Lundqvist set the mark with 34 wins with the Rangers and told him that was the target he should shoot for.

"Homer told him, 'I don't want to win 34, I want to win 35.' While he's going to fall a little bit short of that (26 wins), he never viewed himself as the backup coming into this season and that's what I like."

The Lightning, meanwhile, have another Southeast Division battle on their hands Tuesday night when they host the Carolina Hurricanes, the defending Stanley Cup champs hanging on for dear life, two points back of Montreal for the eighth and final playoff spot in the East.

The Hurricanes also play Friday at home to Atlanta and Saturday home to Florida.

"People ask me what I expect from this team from week to week and I really can't tell you other than the fact that we're capable of winning these games," Hurricanes GM Jim Rutherford said Monday.

The Hurricanes are banged up on the blue-line. Tim Gleason sustained a broken hand in Sunday's game against Florida. He joins defencemen Glen Wesley (broken foot) and Bret Hedican (hip) on the sidelines.

"We do have depth on defence and this is where that depth has to come through for us," said Rutherford.

While the 'Canes and Lightning face a pressure-packed week, Waddell is comforted in knowing his team will play spring-time hockey no matter what happens.

"The buzz here in Atlanta has been excellent," said Waddell. "We'll have a good crowd here Wednesday night and we're sold out already for the weekend game against Tampa. And obviously going into the playoffs it's going to be a lot of fun around here."



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