Gaborik scored his League-leading 23rd goal of the season, but Ilya Kovalchuk and Slava Kozlov scored in the shootout to give the Atlanta Thrashers a 3-2 win Monday night at Madison Square Garden and send the Rangers to their seventh loss in eight games.
The Rangers (14-16-2) had a 48-28 advantage in shots on goal, but Thrashers goaltender Johan Hedberg was outstanding in improving to 9-3-0 this season. In addition to his 46 saves through overtime, he didn't allow a goal on the two shootout attempts by Gaborik and Ales Kotalik, who flubbed his chance and never got a shot on net.
Hedberg was especially effective during the first period when he stopped all 16 shots the Rangers sent his way. Hedberg came up with successive stops on Gaborik and Michael Del Zotto off an odd-man rush, then made a spectacular sprawling save to deny Kotalik minutes later.
"I know that they're kind of a desperate team, that they're going to come hard and do everything they can to get some goals," Hedberg said. "It wasn't surprising that they came out as hard, but I think we really held the fort and were battling strong in front of our own net. It felt good."
"One of the things with Hedberg is, it's not just about making the saves," said Thrashers coach John Anderson, "but when the puck is dumped in, he goes out and gets it. He really helps our defense out there."
The Rangers can thank goaltender Henrik Lundqvist (26 saves) for allowing them to at least salvage a point. Already in the midst of killing a penalty, defenseman Dan Girardi cleared the puck over the glass to give the Thrashers (17-11-3) a 5-on-3 for 1:26. But Lundqvist slammed the door and allowed the game to get to overtime.
"When I saw the puck go over the glass, I thought, 'Here we go,' " Lundqvist said of Girardi's gaffe. "It feels good that we managed to get a point after all. Guys worked hard in front of me and we got a couple of lucky bounces. It's not a good thing to get a 5-on-3 with five minutes to go with the record we have, but we stepped up and pulled it off."
"That was important. Hank made some key saves," Rangers coach John Tortorella said. "That's a big reason we end up getting a point."
Still, this was a game the Rangers could've easily earned two points instead of one. They dominated play for nearly the entire game, including a first period that saw them outshoot the Thrashers 16-6 but head to the intermission trailing 1-0. But Hedberg was constantly there to slam the door.
Tortorella saw a lot of positive things in the tough loss.
"Other than 6 or 7 minutes in the beginning of the second period, I thought we played a really good hockey game," Tortorella said. "So we just gotta keep on trying to build off it, get over that hump with that second goal. We had our chances to score a third one, just couldn't get it done. But a lot of good things in this game to build off."
One of those good things was the return of Brandon Dubinsky, who missed the last 13 games with a broken hand. Dubinsky didn't register a point or a shot, but it was evident that the 23-year-old center helped bolster the offense that has now scored only 15 goals in its last nine games.
"He gave us some juice, didn't he?" Tortorella said of Dubinsky, who logged 24:06 of ice time in his first game since Nov. 7. "He had no problems with his hand, so it's good to have him back in our lineup. He was an important guy for us tonight."
"I felt good," Dubinsky said. "After the first couple shifts, I got into a couple battles out there. I felt strong and I was ready. Everything else felt great; the legs, the energy, the lungs. It was reassuring."
Another positive was the play of Del Zotto, the rookie defenseman who is now the undisputed quarterback of the power play.
He picked up two beautiful assists with the man-advantage Monday night, one on a 120-foot pass that led to Ryan Callahan's breakaway goal that tied the score at 1-1 in the second period, and another on a cross-ice pass to set up Gaborik's goal in the third period that came 59 seconds after Colby Armstrong's shorthanded goal gave the Thrashers a brief 2-1 lead.
"You have to give the kid some credit in how he sees plays," Tortorella said of Del Zotto. "That's the thing about him. He's so decisive. When he decides he's going to make a play, he is going to make that play. Our entries on the breakouts were good, namely with Michael Del Zotto."
In the end, it was the play of a Swedish goaltender that made the difference. Only it wasn't the Olympic gold medalist between the pipes for the Rangers. It was the 36-year-old Hedberg who stole the show from his countryman.
"'Moose' stood on his head," Kovlachuk said of Hedberg. "He played like one of the best tonight for sure. I think he stepped up big, but it doesn't surprise me because of the way he works on himself on the ice, it's unbelievable. He's a great leader and we need that kind of work from him."