ATLANTA -- Following his team's 5-2 relief-inducing victory Friday over the Atlanta Thrashers, New York Rangers goalie Henrik Lundqvist was honest in his appraisal of what a fifth straight loss would have meant to its playoff hopes.
"Yeah, it felt like do-or-die almost," said Lundqvist, who made 29 saves to deal Atlanta its fifth straight regulation loss. "Even though we have a chance if we lost tonight, mentally, knowing you're five points behind, you've been losing a few games, so this was big for our confidence, but also to stay in the hunt here."
The win before 15,571 at Philips Arena, fueled by Vinny Prospal's two goals and an assist, gives the Rangers 69 points, good for ninth in the Eastern Conference. They are three behind idle Boston, which has two games in hand on the Rangers.
Atlanta remains six points out with 15 games to play but fell to 11th, one point behind Tampa Bay, a 3-2 winner over Washington on Friday.
"It looks bleak now, but it can change very quickly," Thrashers coach John Anderson said.
During the Rangers' 0-2-2 skid, their top line of Marian Gaborik, Olli Jokinen and Prospal had combined for just one goal -- though Jokinen had totaled four assists in that span.
On Friday, that line broke out. Gaborik netted his 36th of the season and his first since fighting through groin troubles that have plagued him since the Olympics. Rangers coach John Tortorella wasn't so impressed with the line's even strength play -- even though they finished a collective plus-3 -- but it keyed a power-play that was 2-for-6.
"They made some big plays on the power play and, certainly, as we've talked about, we need them on the board and they were on the board and that's big for our win tonight," he said.
Atlanta, a 2-1 loser in Columbus on Thursday, came out strong, controlling play territorially for the first five minutes. But then Prospal struck at 7:49 of the first when his fairly routine-looking slap shot from the left wing eluded the catching glove of Thrashers goalie Johan Hedberg (30 saves) to the far side.
Before 14 minutes had elapsed, the Rangers led 3-0.
"Obviously, it always shakes the confidence of a team when you come into your own building after a tough loss last night and you're down 3-0 after the first 20 minutes," Prospal said. "So it's a huge, huge start for us to come out and get the lead."
Seven seconds after Prospal broke the ice, Hedberg dug a bigger hole for himself by shooting the puck over the glass for a delay of game penalty. Gaborik scored 34 seconds later.
Prospal made it 3-0 at 13:26 as the Rangers took advantage of a 5-on-3. Pavel Kubina went off for tripping and then Chris Thorburn was called for holding Brandon Dubinsky during an odd-man rush.
Just after the first penalty to Kubina expired, Prospal connected amid a scrum in front of the net. On the 5-on-3, Tortorella used an alignment of five forwards: Prospal, Gaborik and Jokinen along with Ryan Callahan and Chris Drury, who had two assists.
"We'd still like to have a righty," Tortorella said of the unit. "But, again, the five forwards did a pretty good job on the 5-on-3 and it's a big goal. I know it's not a 5-on-3 but it's right at the end, it's a big goal.
"I'd like to know what the percentages are when you don't score on a 5-on-3 whether you win or lose that hockey game. It's a high percentage when you don't score that you end up losing that hockey game."
Atlanta had two chances to get back in the game. Clarke MacArthur converted a one-time pass from Rich Peverley for a power play goal just 2:33 into the second period to make it 3-1. But Michael Del Zotto was credited with a goal after a puck deflected off Thrashers defenseman Zach Bogosian and slid through Hedberg's pads at 17:32 of the second.
"That's a huge goal to get back to a three-goal lead, especially late," Tortorella said.
Atlanta again cut the lead to two goals when defenseman Ron Hainsey scored from the slot on a wrist shot with 8:34 left in regulation. The Thrashers then earned a power play when Jody Shelley went off for hooking at 13:18.
But Lundqvist, pulled in Wednesday's 6-3 loss at New Jersey, slammed the door.
"Just a relief to get this one," he said.
Ryan Callahan scored an empty-net goal with 66 seconds left.
As much as the win was a relief for the Rangers, it could prove a knock-out blow for the Thrashers, who went 4-0-2 to claim eighth briefly before this losing streak began. The Thrashers have been outscored 19-5 in those five losses.
"Right now, we're not getting anything for free and we have to work for everything we get," Hedberg said. "It's very frustrating right now."