Free Falling

With the playoffs long since eliminated as a possibility, the Atlanta Thrashers have been in free fall for more than a month.

A loss on Monday would bring them to rock bottom.

The Tampa Bay Lightning will look to leapfrog the Thrashers and emerge from last place in the Eastern Conference when they host Atlanta in the first of two meetings between the teams in the season's final week.

Oddsmakers from Sportsbook.com have made Tampa Bay -155 money line favorites (NHL Odds) for today's game, the over/under has been set at 6 goals (Matchup). Current public betting information shows that 60% of bets for this game have been placed on Tampa Bay -155 (View NHL Bet Percentages).

The Thrashers (32-39-8) have only won three times in their last 19 games, going 3-12-4 since Feb. 16 while seeing their lead over the last-place Lightning (31-38-9) cut to just one point.

Atlanta has allowed just under four goals per game over that span, and Johan Hedberg permitted all of Carolina's goals in a 7-1 loss to the Hurricanes on Friday. The Thrashers, who had killed all 11 opponent power plays in the previous two games, allowed five man-advantage goals.

"It was one of those games that got out of hand," Thrashers coach Don Waddell said.

No matter who has been in net recently, Atlanta has struggled on defense, as opponents have scored at least three goals in nine of the last 10 games. Since Feb. 16, starting goalie Kari Lehtonen is 2-8-3 with a 3.71 GAA.

Defense has been the area where the Lightning have seen the biggest improvement this season. That's been evident over the past three games, as Tampa Bay has gone 2-0-1 and allowed just six goals.

Karri Ramo stopped a career-high 38 shots in Saturday's 2-1 win over the Hurricanes, and forward Jeff Halpern scored the game-winner 5:43 into the third period.

"I think this team has shown a lot of character," said Halpern, who came to the Lightning in the trade that sent Brad Richards to Dallas last month. "We're not playing for the same thing the playoff teams are playing for, but it's a tribute to the guys who have been here who have pride in the organization."

Tampa Bay has played one fewer game than Atlanta, meaning a win over the Thrashers would give the Lightning the inside track to avoid finishing the season in last place. Each of these teams qualified for the playoffs in 2006-07.

The Thrashers have won four straight against the Lightning after dropping the first two meetings of the season, but two of the last three have gone to overtime. Atlanta - which had lost five straight at the St. Pete Times Forum until a 6-4 win on Nov. 3 - won 2-1 in overtime at home in the most recent meeting on Feb. 9.

The teams' leading scorers - Atlanta's Ilya Kovalchuk and Tampa Bay's Vincent Lecavalier - each have no goals and one assist in their last four games. But Kovalchuk has six goals and three assists and Lecavalier has four goals and six assists in six games in the series this season.

The teams close the season against each other in Atlanta on Saturday.

by: Staff Writers - Email Us

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