The Atlanta Thrashers are making the first playoff appearance in franchise history. The New York Rangers were there just last season, as much as they would like to forget it.
The Thrashers hope to make their postseason debut a successful one as they face the Rangers in Game 1 of their Eastern Conference quarterfinal series at Philips Arena.
Atlanta (43-28-11), which entered the NHL in 1999-00, finished this season with a franchise-record 97 points to win the Southeast Division and claim the third seed in the East.
This will be Atlanta's first taste of NHL playoff hockey since 1980, when the Atlanta Flames lost to the Rangers in the first round. The Flames never won a playoff series in eight seasons in Atlanta.
"I think we're going to generate lots of energy in this great city with the playoffs," Thrashers coach Bob Hartley said. "There are lots of faithful hockey fans who have waited a long time for this, and now we're going to be able to thank them by giving them the NHL playoffs. That will create an extra buzz for this city and hopefully create new hockey fans."
One trend the Thrashers hope to see continue is the Stanley Cup staying in the Southeast Division. The last two champions have come from the Southeast - Tampa Bay in 2003-04 and Carolina last season.
A talented team last season, the Thrashers were quiet at the trade deadline and ended up missing the playoffs by two points. Atlanta took no chances this year, acquiring playoff-tested veterans Keith Tkachuk and Alexei Zhitnik in separate deals.
The Thrashers went 12-4-1 down the stretch with Tkachuk and Zhitnik in the lineup. Adding those two to a team that already had 100-point scorer Marian Hossa, three-time 40-goal scorer Ilya Kovalchuk and Slava Kozlov (80 points) makes Atlanta very formidable.
Hossa was one of the league's best players this season, but only had 13 goals in 51 career postseason games during seven trips there with Ottawa. Marian's younger brother, Marcel, plays for the Rangers and is expected to return for this series after missing the final month of the season with a knee injury.
Goaltender Kari Lehtonen remains the key to Atlanta's postseason success. The 23-year-old Finn went 34-24-9 with a 2.79 goals-against average in the regular season, and is 4-1-0 with a 2.70 GAA in five career starts against New York (42-30-10).
The Rangers ended a seven-year playoff drought last season, but their postseason stay was extremely short. They lost the Atlantic Division title on the final day of the regular season with their fifth straight defeat and never recovered, getting outscored 17-4 in a four-game sweep to rival New Jersey.
This season, though, has been a completely different story for New York, which had points in 17 of its final 19 games (13-2-4), including a 9-1-1 run at home.
"Our goal was to make the playoffs, but now our other goal is to just go as far as you can go," said right wing Jaromir Jagr, who scored four goals in the final five games to reach 30 for the 15th straight season. "Last year we lost in the playoffs in four games. Now I think we're good enough to do some damage."
Forward Sean Avery, acquired from Los Angeles on Feb. 5, and goaltender Henrik Lundqvist have been the main catalysts during the late-season surge. The Rangers went 17-6-6 with the abrasive Avery in the lineup, and he has done much more than just antagonize opponents, collecting eight goals and 20 points in those 29 games.
"It's just my game that I play every night and try to keep it consistent," Avery said.
Lundqvist shook off a slow start to end the regular season as one of the league's hottest goalies. He went 11-2-4 over his final 18 games, finishing 37-22-8 with a 2.34 GAA and five shutouts. Lundqvist struggled in his playoff debut against the Devils, going 0-3 with a 4.41 GAA, but was bothered by a late-season hip injury.
Jagr injured his shoulder in Game 1 of the series against New Jersey and was never close to 100 percent. He led the Rangers with 96 points this season despite playing most of the year at half-strength. Jagr remains one of the NHL's best playoff performers with 67 goals and 155 points in 149 games.
Jagr and Brendan Shanahan give the Rangers two 600-goal scorers. Shanahan had 29 goals and 62 points in his first season in New York despite missing 15 games with a concussion.
The Thrashers won three of four against the Rangers this season, including two victories in overtime.