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Halpern scores go-ahead goal in the third to lead Tampa Bay past Carolina 2-1

Carolina Hurricanes goalie Cam Ward (30) covers up to make a save against Tampa Bay Lightning right wing Martin St. Louis (26) during the first period of their hockey game Saturday, March 29, 2008 in Tampa, Fla. THE ASSOCIATED PRESS/Steve Nesius

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Carolina Hurricanes goalie Cam Ward (30) covers up to make a save against Tampa Bay Lightning right wing Martin St. Louis (26) during the first period of their hockey game Saturday, March 29, 2008 in Tampa, Fla. THE ASSOCIATED PRESS/Steve Nesius

TAMPA, Fla. - The Tampa Bay Lightning aren't playing like a team that will miss the playoffs. Their latest victory could eventually prove costly to the Carolina Hurricanes.

Jeff Halpern scored the go-ahead goal early in the third period and Karri Ramo made 38 saves to lead the Lightning past the Southeast Division-leading Hurricanes 2-1 on Saturday night.

"I think this team has shown a lot of character," Halpern said. "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."

Halpern gave the Lightning a 2-1 lead on a shot from the right circle 5:43 into the third period. Jussi Jokinen also scored for Tampa Bay, which is last in the Eastern Conference and won for the sixth time in its last 20 games.

"We won more battles than they did," Ramo said.

Tampa Bay has beaten Carolina and Florida, and lost in overtime to Washington in its past three games.

Chad LaRose scored for the Hurricanes, who saw their lead over second-place Washington cut to two points after the Capitals beat Florida 3-0.

"We knew the score, and obviously we were really pushing to get that next goal to try and get us back, and it just didn't happen," Carolina centre Eric Staal said.

The Hurricanes and Capitals both have three games left, including a showdown Tuesday in Washington.

"We've got to come up with four points (to win the division)," Carolina coach Peter Laviolette said. "It doesn't matter how we do it, but Tuesday night will be a big one, no question about it."

LaRose put the Hurricanes ahead 1-0 from the low slot off a pass from Trevor Letowski with 2:36 left in the first.

Jokinen tied it just 18 seconds into the second on a power play.

Cam Ward stopped 19 shots for Carolina, which lost for fourth time in 16 games.

Ramo preserved the Lightning's one-goal advantage with an in-close save on Staal with 2:10 remaining in the third.

"We had some opportunities. We just didn't bury them," Hurricanes center Jeff Hamilton said. "It was a hard-fought game, both sides. Give the goalie credit. We'll regroup."

Notes: Hurricanes D Bret Hedican (torso strain) didn't play. ... Lightning D Brad Lukowich returned after missing the previous 21 games because of a sports hernia. ... With Lukowich playing, Tampa Bay D Shane O'Brien was a healthy scratch. ... Ward started his 17th straight game. ... Lightning starting G Mike Smith was the backup after sitting out the past two games due to a sprained left knee. ... Ramo, named one of the three stars of the game, threw his stick to a fan in the stands.

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