NEW YORK -- Following a 3-0 loss to a team that had nothing to play for except pride and a paycheck, the New York Rangers were faced with the realization that they no longer control their postseason destiny.
"We laid an egg," coach John Tortorella said after his team was thoroughly outplayed by the Atlanta Thrashers on Thursday night at Madison Square Garden.
"We didn't make enough plays," forward Brian Boyle said. "We had some chances where we were close. Close isn't good enough, especially this time of year."
The Rangers came out strong in the first five minutes, but the Thrashers used two goals during a 15-second span in the second period by Rob Schremp and Andrew Ladd to break open a scoreless game. Goaltender Ondrej Pavelec was sharp, making 29 saves to put the Rangers in the precarious position of needing help to avoid missing the postseason for a second straight season.
The Rangers are still in eighth place in the East, two points ahead of the ninth-place Carolina Hurricanes. But the Rangers have just one game remaining while Carolina has two games left. If the Hurricanes win those games, they will overtake the Rangers.
In that scenario, the Rangers can still make the playoffs with a win against the New Jersey Devils on Saturday afternoon as long as the seventh-place Buffalo Sabres lose their final two games in regulation. The Sabres host the Philadelphia Flyers on Friday and visit the Columbus Blue Jackets, who will be without Rick Nash, on Saturday.
The Thrashers will host the Hurricanes on Friday night; Carolina then hosts Tampa Bay on Saturday.
As down as the Rangers' dressing room was following the loss, Brandon Dubinsky offered a glass-half-full view of his team's situation.
"As far as I know, we're still in eighth place," Dubinsky said. "Until something shows me otherwise, that is the attitude we're going to have. We are going to do what we can and control what we can control. We have to do it like pros. I have said it before -- we have to have a short memory."
This situation is certain to jog the Rangers' long-term memory. It was just last season where they needed a victory in their final game to reach the playoffs, but a 2-1 shootout loss to the Flyers in Philadelphia ended their season prematurely and propelled the Flyers all the way to the Stanley Cup Final.
After a scoreless first period, the Rangers nearly got on the board first, but a shot by Boyle rang off the post. Two minutes later, Schremp gave the Thrashers as 1-0 lead by firing a wrist shot that beat goaltender Henrik Lundqvist to the blocker side.
In the blink of an eye, Ladd broke through the middle of the ice, flying past defensemen Marc Staal and Dan Girardi and beating Lundqvist between the legs to make it 2-0.
"We had contributions from everybody," Thrashers coach Craig Ramsay said. "We had the kind of game we talked about and great goaltending. They really went after us early. They came out hard. We weathered the storm and our goalie was good and gave us that chance and we fought back."
Eric Boulton's goal at 4:19 of the third period, a redirection of a Johnny Oduya pass that found the top corner of the net over Lundqvist's blocker, was a bit of unnecessary insurance.
It was more than enough for Pavelec, who delivered a sublime performance after entering the game 3-10-2 in his last 15 decisions.
"I think it was very important to score the third goal," Pavelec said. "They had a couple scoring chances, but the guys let me see the puck tonight. It was a good team effort and a good two points, but it's too late for us."
This was the Rangers' first game since losing forward Ryan Callahan to a fractured leg. He's out indefinitely, but the Rangers wouldn't use that as an excuse for a poor showing against the Thrashers that saw the power play go 0-for-4 and fall to 1-for-27 over the last seven games.
"Obviously he is a big part of this team," Dubinsky said. "That is something we put to rest (Wednesday). We have to step up and move on without him. We have to be ready to practice (Friday) and be ready Saturday.
The Rangers aren't in the same desperate situation they were last season, but they will most likely have to beat the Devils on Saturday if they want to get to the postseason. Asked if he was surprised that his team was going to have to win Game 82 for a second season in a row, Tortorella said no.
"We felt this coming for the past three weeks," he said. "We have been on a pretty good run (10-3-1 before Thursday) but Carolina keeps on winning. Buffalo keeps on winning. It doesn't surprise me at all that it takes 82. We will be ready to play Game 82."
So will the Devils. They won't be playing after this weekend, but many of their veterans have openly said they always take a little more out of beating the Rangers. There's probably no other way goaltender Martin Brodeur would like to end the regular season than by making sure the Rangers will be joining him on a golf course in the New York/New Jersey area.
"They are going to do everything they can to spoil it," Lundqvist said. "They are going to do everything they can to not see us in the playoffs. It is going to be an exciting game, big game again like last year. Obviously we want to be in a better position going into Game 82, but we don't have a choice."
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