ATLANTA -- It was apparent early on the Thrashers weren't playing like a team that had lost four in a row.
It was Tampa Bay's third straight loss and fifth in six games, and dropped the Lightning's road record to a league-worst 3-12-1.
"It was an excellent first period," said Thrashers coach and general manager Don Waddell. "The key tonight was our start. I thought we took the game over right off the bat."
It was also a big game in the Southeast Division.
"These are four-point games. In our own division you can make up a lot of ground," said Waddell. "Two points we get are two points they don't get."
Atlanta's Ilya Kovalchuk, who had an assist, added his league-leading 27th goal in the third period.
"It was a huge game. We got a good start, a quick couple of goals put them on their heels," said Kovalchuk.
Exelby opened the scoring with his second goal, a slap shot from near the blue line past Holmqvist at 5:56 of the first period.
Recchi scored his third goal in four games since being claimed on waivers from Pittsburgh on Dec. 8, beating Tampa Bay goaltender Johan Holmqvist from in close at the 15:04 mark. Kovalchuk got the assist.
Atlanta made it 3-0 at 17:27 as Kozlov got his ninth goal, knocking in a rebound of a shot by Marian Hossa.
"It was a pretty rough first period," said Tampa Bay coach John Tortorella. "We have to keep on trying. We just have to find a way to grind through this."
Kovalchuk's unassisted goal at 9:28 of the third period came when he stole the puck at center ice and swept in all alone on Denis, beating him easily from point-blank range.
Lehtonen, who missed 16 games with a groin injury, had 32 saves. It was only his third win in nine starts. He also had an assist on Recchi's goal.
The four-game losing streak was Atlanta's longest since dropping the first six this season under coach Bob Hartley, who was fired and replaced by Waddell.
"This is a good start (on stretch of nine of the next 13 games at home), but it doesn't take away from losing four in a row," said Lehtonen. "We have to build on this and focus on Thursday."
The Thrashers play Ottawa on Thursday. The Senators beat Atlanta 7-3 on Saturday night.
- Lehtonen's other two wins were against the New York Islanders, including a shutout on Dec. 1.
- Tampa Bay's Vincent Lacavalier, who leads league in scoring with 51 points, was held scoreless.
- The Thrashers split up the line that included their two top scorers Kovalchuk and Hossa, hoping to get more offense after being outscored 22-9 in their last four games. Kovalchuk was paired with Todd White and Recchi. Hossa was reunited with Kozlov, where they teamed most of last season.