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Rangers complete sweep at MSG, reach Round 2

by Staff Writer / New York Rangers

Goalie Henrik Lundqvist finished the evening with 24 saves on Wednesday and allowed only six goals in the entire series.


POSTGAME VIDEO FROM MSG
Sam and Joe Recap Game 4 WMP
Renney Talks About The Series Victory WMP
Jagr on the Performance Against Atlanta WMP
Cullen Talks About the Series-Winning Goal WMP
Nylander on Reaching the Second Round WMP
Shanahan on Winning for the Fans WMP
Atlanta Coach Hartley's Postgame Remarks WMP

Scoresheet | Stats | Faceoffs | Play-by-Play | Shift Chart

Matt Cullen picked the perfect moment to score his first goal of the 2007 Stanley Cup playoffs.

The third-line center who played such a vital role in Carolina's run to the Cup last season, more than proved his plaoff worth to Rangers fans on Wednesday night at Madison Square Garden, notching the series-winning goal in the third period of a 4-2 victory over the Atlanta Thrashers.

Thanks to that goal, and an earlier one from Brendan Shanahan that pulled the Rangers into a 2-2 tie with only 1:42 remaining in the middle period, the Blueshirts completed a four-game sweep of their best-of-seven series. They finished off the Thrashers on Wednesday with the same mixture of business-like determination and on-ice domination that marked the first three games.

"You can't really ask for a better series from the guys," said Shanahan, a three-time Stanley Cup champion. "It is always great to accomplish one of your goals. One of our goals was to beat our first opponent. We are happy with the way we played the series, but at the same time we are keeping our head on our shoulders. We certainly don't feel like we have hit a finish line here. We are going to get ready for our next opponent."

So now it's on to Round 2.

Cullen's goal was the clincher, but captain Jaromir Jagr added the exclamation point, hitting an empty net to seal the win with 1:33 remaining in the game. Down one goal with nearly two minutes to go, Atlanta head coach Bob Hartley had pulled goaltender Johan Hedberg for an extra attacker, but the move backfired when Jagr stole the puck in the defensive zone, skated up ice and fired a long wrister into the unguarded Thrashers goal.

The victory gave the Rangers their first series win since 1997 and their first on home ice since beating Quebec in the first round of the 1995 playoffs. It also capped off the first series sweep since the Blueshirts dismissed the Islanders in the opening round of their 1994 run to the Stanley Cup championship.

Jagr said he was thrilled to be part of a playoff run that has energized the Rangers and their fans.

"I am just enjoying every moment I have a chance to play here," he said. "I love this organization. I love the players I am playing with. They are all great players. When I was young, Mario (Lemieux) gave me the Cup. I always wanted to help the younger guys like Mario helped me. If I can do it or not I don't know. It was always my goal for the last five or six years. Maybe this year."

Best of all, the Rangers pulled off a complete reversal of their experience one year ago, when the Rangers were on the other end of a first-round series sweep engineered by New Jersey.

"It is always fun to win. I don't spend too much energy thinking about last year," Rangers goaltender Henrik Lundqvist said. "I feel healthy, and the team is playing great right now. It is right now that matters. We just have to the best we can to keep this going."

Shanahan said while that the Rangers were confident in their abilities, the sweep wasn't something they anticipated coming into the round against Atlanta.

"I don't know if anybody goes into any series expecting to sweep," Shanahan said. "They are pretty rare. I don't think anybody ever says 'we are going to sweep this series'."

The game plan was perfect throughout this series, as the Rangers outscored Atlanta 12-6 in the four games, winning the first two by one-goal margins before coming home for a 7-0 rout on Tuesday and the 4-2 victory on Wednesday.

"To me the biggest difference (in the series) is the games before the playoffs," said Jagr. "We learned how to play in the playoffs. They clinched the playoffs before us. We had to fight until the last game. The last 20 games was practice for the playoffs."

Nearly 18 minutes remained after Cullen's big goal on Wednesday, but there was no doubt that this was the monumental turning point in a victory that gave the Rangers what will amount to a full week off before beginning their Eastern Conference Semifinals series next week.

"It is always exciting to win and have a long rest," said Jagr. "It wasn't our goal to just make the first round. The last 20 or 30 games of the regular season, the way we played we can play anybody."

In Round 2, the Rangers will face either Buffalo, Ottawa, Pittsburgh or Tampa Bay, depending on the results of the other first-round playoff series involving those teams.

As the first team to advance in the 2007 playoffs, the Rangers are assured of being one of only eight teams still playing for the Stanley Cup when the second round gets under way. The Blueshirts also became the only NHL team to engineer a sweep in this year's opening round -- giving them a big advantage as they move forward, because of the long period of rest they earned.

There is no doubt that the next round will be tougher, because the Rangers certainly benefited from the opportunity to open the playoffs against a Thrashers team unprepared for their offensive prowess. Still, the utter domination of this series set the stage for what could be a journey that runs deep into this postseason.

Cullen's goal at 2:06 of the third was hardly textbook, requiring a drawn-out video review process to confirm that the puck had crossed the goal line. The winning blast – unleashed from just inside the blueline directly across from Hedberg -- hit the middle of the crossbar and bounced down just over the goal line, but because of the angle from which the puck struck the ice, it instantly rebounded back out into the defensive zone.

"I had a little space, the defensemen were back a little bit and I just wanted to get it on net," said Cullen. "I was moving across, so I lost sight of it for a second. I assumed it hit the cross bar and went out so I didn't see it until after they called it a goal."

Unaware that a goal had been scored, officials allowed play to continue until the next stoppage, when they promptly called for a video review of Cullen's shot.

Following the long delay required for NHL crew in Toronto to fully review the play, the correct call was made, and the Madison Square Garden fans hit their highest decibel levels of the series' first two games in New York.

"I felt the longer it took, the better chance it was a goal," said Cullen. "The longer it took I was getting more and more hopeful. I was trying to tell myself not to get too excited because I would be disappointed if it wasn't in."

Rookie defenseman Thomas Pock and rookie forward Ryan Callahan assisted on Cullen's goal, which was evidence of the balanced scoring the Rangers got throughout the series. The No. 1 line might have been the big story for much of the past week, but the ultimate series clincher came courtesy of the third line.

"That is what you need," Jagr said of the scoring distribution. "One man is not going to win the series."

From the moment Cullen's goal was ruled to be good, the outcome seemed a foregone conclusion. Atlanta, however, did get one last opportunity to tie the game after killing off a subsequent 5-on-3 for the Rangers with Fedor Tyutin went off for interference at 7:52. But the Rangers penalty killers, and Lundqvist slammed the door, with Lundqvist making his toughest save against Marian Hossa in the power play's final eight seconds.

"Once we got the goal we knew that they were gonna fight really hard," said forward Jed Ortmeyer. "We tightened up defensively and made sure we took care of our end and let Hank see the puck."

Lundqvist would finish the night with 24 saves, coming just 24 hours after a 21-save performance in his first playoff shutout on Tuesday night.

"I was just relaxed, and I didn't spend too much energy on things that didn't matter," he said. "We knew the start was going to be important tonight. Unfortunately, they got the first goal so they had a lot of energy from it. We stuck to the game plan and we didn't panic. Even when they had a 2-1 lead we believed in each other. (It was) just a great effort."

After they successfully killed off the Tyutin penalty, the Rangers were in control for the rest of the way. They kept the Thrashers on their heels, ensuring that there would be no need to return to Georgia for a Game 5.

"I just think, the same thing the last seven weeks, we just made a commitment and looked around to each other and said we have to get this done," said Sean Avery, another big force in the series. "Let's close this thing. Let's get it done because our fans are here rocking. We played well enough and we deserved it."

The stage was actually set for the third-period heroics near the end of the second period, when Shanahan scored at the 18:18 mark to pull the Rangers into a 2-2 tie with the Thrashers.

Shanahan's goal, which drove the crowd into a frenzy, came just under six minutes after Greg de Vries had given the Thrashers a 2-1 lead that seemingly put Atlanta into the driver's seat, even on a night when they faced playoff elimination.

"Shanny's goal was huge," said Cullen. "It kind of shifted momentum back to us."

But just as he did with the winning tally late in Game 2 at Atlanta, it was Shanahan who reminded everybody which team owned this first-round series. Up until his goal, Atlanta had threatened to enter an intermission with the lead for the first time since the round got under way last Thursday night. Instead, the Thrashers went into the locker room knowing the third period would be a fight for their playoff lives.

Shanahan, who has now scored in three straight playoff games, turned the tide by capping off a 2-on-1 break with linemate Martin Straka. Avery sprung Shanahan and Straka on the break, and Shanahan cruised down the left wing with Straka to his right. Unable to get the puck through to Straka, Shanahan instead faked a pass and unloaded a blast from the left faceoff circle that caught the inside of Hedberg's pads on its way into the net.

"When I go down on a 2-on-1, I think I make a great shot and the goalie stops it, but Shanny goes down on a 2-on-1 and he scores," said Avery. "That is what he does. It is tough to explain how it is or why it happens. That is what he does. He has done it for a long time. If a guy like that gets hot, which I think he is, it is only going to help."

Through two periods, Wednesday's game was nearly even in shots, with the Thrashers actually leading 20-19 in that category. Although the Rangers would outshoot Atlanta 12-6 in the third period for a overall 30-26 advantage, the difference for the Rangers over those first two, tight periods was Lundqvist, whose performance included some sparkling second-period stops before de Vries snapped what had been a 1-1 tie.

Lundqvist came up with two brilliant back-to-back saves in the first two and a half minutes of the middle period. He stopped Pascal Dupuis from point blank range in front of the crease at 2:28 and then stood his ground to deny Bobby Holik from an equally opportune angle after Holik picked up Dupuis' rebound.

Hedberg also made a statement early in the period, denying the Rangers' Marcel Hossa on a turnaround shot just 57 seconds in and then -- under pressure from the No. 3 line of Cullen, Petr Prucha and Callahan, Hedberg saved the day for Atlanta again, robbing Prucha at the 5:53 mark.

"We had a lot of scoring chances. We hit some posts and (had) plays around the net that didn't seem to want to go in for us until Jags (Jagr) put in the empty netter," said Shanahan. "We were earning those chances. They weren't gifts. Those chances were being earned by hard work and driving to the net. So long as we were doing that, we were a long way away from our net."

Atlanta took the 2-1 lead on a wild end-to-end play that resulted in a goal by defenseman de Vries. After the Rangers had been stopped on a foray into the Thrashers zone -- a play on which the fans were expecting a penalty call against an Atlanta player -- the Thrashers came right back up the ice on a partial breakaway.

Hossa got the first Atlanta shot, which Lundqvist stopped. The referee signaled a penalty, but play continued on the delayed call, as the Rangers struggled to gain control.

Hossa's rebound came out to Dupuis, who took another shot from point-blank range. Lundqvist got his pads on the puck, but the rebound came back to Dupuis, who spotted an open de Vries charging in from the left point. Before Lundqvist had to to get back into position, de Vries had blasted a slap shot through traffic and into the top left corner of the net for a 2-1 lead at 12:26.

The goal met with thundering jeers from the furious Garden crowd, still irate at officials over the non-call on the play that preceded it. The Rangers soon got the chance to work on the man-advantage, however, as Andy Sutton was whistled for tripping Avery inside the Thrashers zone.

The Blueshirts came out strong on the power play, but Hedberg was up to the challenge. He made his biggest stop on Jagr at 13:49.

Earlier in the game, it took only 79 seconds for the Rangers to erase Atlanta's first lead in the series, enabling them to hit the first intermission with a 1-1 tie.

The Thrashers, who had never led the Rangers in dropping the first three games, held an early advantage on a goal by Keith Tkachuk, but it proved short-lived. Atlanta quickly made the mistake of giving the Blueshirts a chance to work their power play, and the Rangers were able cash in on the opportunity.

Defenseman Michal Rozsival scored the man-advantage goal only 12 seconds into the Rangers' lone power play in the first period. His tally came only 1:19 after Tkachuk's goal had briefly silenced the roaring MSG crowd.

The first-period power-play opportunity resulted from an interference call against Atlanta's Jim Slater at the 7:45 mark -- a penalty that would manage to knock the wind out of Atlanta's sails.

Rozsival scored from the top of the left faceoff circle shortly after the Rangers won the faceoff in the offensive zone. Blueshirts captain Jagr got the play going when he sent a pass to Michael Nylander in the right corner. Nylander moved out toward the right circle and fed a pass back to Straka at the right point. Straka then spotted Rozsival pinching in from the left point and fed the puck onto his stick just above the circle. The defenseman rifled a wrist shot past Hedberg for his second goal of the playoffs.

Nylander's assist on the play was his NHL-leading eighth point of the postseason. The Rangers center, who has already eclipsed his previous career high of six points in one playoff year, was a driving force in the team's success in the opening-round series.

"It is unbelievable the way everybody has been playing," said Nylander. "We have had great goaltending and good PK (penalty kill). We have been playing well as a team. Every game has been really hard. Everybody on our team played really well. We had a couple of bounces go our way and got the lead and we played off of that. We did a tremendous job. You have to enjoy your moment and go to the next series. It is all so fun. We want to win and we did that. We got our job done and we have to look forward to the next round. This is lots of fun. It took a while but finally!"

The Rangers' No. 1 line again set the tone early and continued to dominate the Thrashers' defensemen in the Atlanta zone. Jagr, Hossa and Nylander kept the puck in the zone for an entire shift within the game's first four minutes, continuing to wear down the Atlanta players even when they weren't putting the puck on net.

Meanwhile, Lundqvist held down the fort for the Blueshirts, stopping nine of 10 first-period shots. He was forced to make some tough saves in the opening period, as his biggest stops came against Tkachuk, emerging from behind the net at 2:10; against Vyacheslav Kozlov on a shot from just outside the crease at 5:37; and against Marian Hossa, whom he robbed with a slap of his glove at 15:12.

"I think the difference was goaltending," said Avery. "I think that is probably the biggest one. Hank (Lundqvist) just makes big saves. Whenever you need a big save, he makes a big one. Obviously, we outplayed them as a team intensity-wise. I think we were definitely more intense than they were."

Despite coming out of the opening 20 minutes in good shape, the Rangers entered uncharted waters in the first period, trailing a game for the first time in the series after Tkachuk gave the Thrashers a 1-0 lead at

The goal, scored at 6:38, came off Ilya Kovalchuk's drop pass for Tkachuk in the slot. The play unfolded so quickly that Lundqvist barely had time to react.

"We didn't feel like we were playing like the way we were playing the first three games," Shanahan said of Wednesday's early going. "We wanted to get back to shortening our shifts, rolling our lines and get back to a rhythm, back to our team and our game. I felt like we were a little bit disjointed in the first and second period. We got back to rolling the lines and we didn't concentrate on matching and we looked a lot like the team that played in the first part of the series."

Tkachuk snapped Lundqvist's shutout string of 81:03, which extended back into the third period of the Rangers' Game 2 victory at Atlanta. Lundqvist had shut out the Thrashers in Game 3 on Tuesday night

Hedberg, starting his second game of the series after losing Game 2 in Atlanta, was also sharp in the opening period with seven saves. He was particularly effective in the early going, making two big stops on defensemen Paul Mara and Rozsival in the first 1:16, but the Rangers managed to wear the entire Atlanta defense down as the game progressed.

Because they won their series in such quick fashion, the Blueshirts must now hurry up and wait for their next opponent to join them in the conference semifinals. That wait could last a full week.

"It is good and bad," Shanahan said of the break. "You want a little bit of a rest but you want to get back at it. I am sure our coaching staff will devise a strategy on what is the best way to get some of the rest we deserve but at the same time stay playoff ready."

Jagr said he welcomed the opportunity to have extra rest before the next round.

"I am glad it is over, especially the back-to-back games. It wasn't easy for me. In the second half of the game I was tired. Between the second and third period you are wondering if you can even go onto the ice," he said. "Even if we have a week off we still have to practice, work hard and get the rest especially for the guys who are injured. For the guys who are coming back, it is going to help them."

Lundqvist agreed that some days without games would be a good thing for the team.

"It can be seen in so many ways. Some guys say it is not better to have rest and some guys say it is good," Lundqvist noted. "We will take it. It has been intense the last couple of days here. We can relax a little bit now and get back at it. There is no point thinking what is good or not. It is good that we are moving to the next level because that is what matters."
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