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New York Rangers vs. Atlanta Thrashers @NHLdotcom
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GAME: New York Rangers (23-29-7-5) at Atlanta Thrashers (25-32-6-2).

TIME: Sunday, 3 p.m. EST.

Atlanta Thrashers coach Bob Hartley sent a strong message to his leading scorer Friday night. Now, he'll see if Ilya Kovalchuk got it.

Kovalchuk, benched for missing a team meeting, is expected to be back on the ice when the Thrashers meet the New York Rangers at Philips Arena.

Hartley refused to give his exact reason for making Kovalchuk, tied with Columbus' Rick Nash for the league lead in goals with 33, a healthy scratch for Friday night's game in New Jersey. However, a team spokesperson confirmed a television report that Kovalchuk had missed a team meeting Thursday, clearing up the "internal team matter" that had led to the benching.

The decision didn't cost Atlanta, which beat the defending Stanley Cup champions 3-2 behind Dany Heatley's power-play goal with 5:48 to play. Afterward, Hartley was unwilling to shed further light on the situation.

"You want the reason why he didn't play? He has the reason. I don't," Hartley said. "I coached 20 guys and we won, it's plain and simple."

Kovalchuk, who is ranked fourth in the NHL with 68 points, has four goals and three assists in his last four games.

"When you are missing your point leader, I think it's an opportunity for guys to step up," said Atlanta defenseman Andy Sutton, who set up the game-winning goal. "It's an opportunity for guys to do something different, to get more ice time. I think it makes you really think what you have to do as a team."

The win ended a two-game losing streak for the Thrashers, who are likely out of serious playoff contention, 13 points behind the eighth-place New York Islanders for the final Eastern Conference spot.

The Rangers, also 13 points back of the Islanders, picked up at least a point in their second straight game under new coach Tom Renney on Saturday, suffering a 2-1 overtime loss at Nashville.

Matthew Barnaby scored the lone goal for the Rangers, who are well on their way to a seventh straight non-playoff season.

"We pressed on, we fought through some penalty-kill stuff that we would rather not have. But we stayed with the program, continued to work hard, and it was anybody's game," said Renney, who won his coaching debut 6-3 over the Islanders on Thursday after replacing team president and general manager Glen Sather behind the bench.

STANDINGS: Rangers - 58 points, 4th place, 26 PB, Atlantic Division. Thrashers - 58 points, 3rd place, 24 PB, Southeast Division.

TEAM LEADERS: Rangers - Jaromir Jagr, 25 goals, 38 assists and 63 points; Chris Simon, 213 PIM. Thrashers - Kovalchuk, 33 goals, 35 assists and 68 points; Francis Lessard, 127 PIM.

SPECIAL TEAMS (through Feb. 27): Rangers - Power play: 14.5 percent (36 for 248), 24th in NHL. Penalty killing: 80.9 percent (245 for 303), 27th. Thrashers - Power play: 14.7 percent (47 for 320), 23rd. Penalty killing: 85.0 percent (256 for 301), 7th.

GOALTENDERS: Rangers - Mike Dunham (15-22-6, 1 SO, 2.94 GAA); Jussi Markkanen (8-11-1, 2, 2.60). Thrashers - Pasi Nurminen (21-23-5, 2, 2.85); Frederic Cassivi (no appearances).

SEASON SERIES: Tied, 0-0-1.

LAST MEETING: Oct. 16; Tie, 0-0, OT. At New York, Dunham stopped 30 shots and Nurminen got in front of 29 during the first scoreless tie in Thrashers history.

ROAD/HOME RECORDS: Rangers - 11-14-4-1 on the road; Thrashers - 13-14-4-0 at home.

Associated Press
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