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|Petr Prucha looks to score against Atlanta goaltender Johan Hedberg, who finished the game with a remarkable 38 saves.
A point earned on the road is always a good thing in the NHL, but the Rangers had to earn theirs the hard way on Friday night in Atlanta.
Tied 1-1 after 60 intense minutes of playoff-style hockey, the Rangers and Thrashers went to overtime, where Atlanta defenseman Alexei Zhitnik scored on a power-play at 2:18 to end a nail-biter and secure a 2-1 win for Thrashers goalie Johan Hedberg, who was clearly the difference in the game.
On a night when the Rangers dominated play, outshooting the Thrashers 28-10 over the final two periods and 39-22 for the overall game, it was Hedberg who prevented the Blueshirts from collecting the extra point that would have given them sole possession of eighth place in the Eastern Conference.
Hedberg's 38-save performance was truly stunning, as he was robbing Rangers shooters left and right. That brilliance lasted into the overtime, as he delivered his final save against Jaromir Jagr at 1:25, less than a minute before Rangers forward Matt Cullen took the holding penalty that led to Zhitnik's game-winner.
Hedberg wasn't the only outstanding Swedish netminder at Philips Arena on Friday night. Henrik Lundqvist was also on top of his game, particularly in the first period when he held off a furious Thrashers attack. Lundqvist's early heroics enabled the Rangers to take a 1-0 lead late in the first, and when the Thrashers tied the game, it took a pinpoint deflection from All-Star Marian Hossa to do it.
Atlanta's victory was its sixth straight win at home and tightened the Thrashers' grip on first place in the NHL's Southeast Division, which would give them a guaranteed top-3 seed for the playoffs.
Although the Rangers did not get the two points that would have moved them into eighth, they did pick up one to tie Toronto for ninth at 77 points. They also got plenty of help around the league on Friday, as Washington crushed the Maple Leafs 5-1, and Pittsburgh beat Montreal, another playoff contender, 6-3.
The point earned in Atlanta gives the Blueshirts a chance to rise as high as seventh in the standings by beating Boston in the second half of their back-to-back set on Saturday night at The Garden. The Rangers also gained some breathing room over the Bruins, who are desperately trying to keep pace with the conference's top 10 teams.
All the benefits of pushing the Thrashers to overtime certainly couldn't take the frustration off losing a game because a hot goaltender got in their way. Hedberg had 13 saves in the second period and a whopping 15 in the third before stopping Jagr in overtime on the Rangers' final scoring chance.
Zhitnik then ended matters when he took a pass from Vyacheslav Kozlov near the blue line directly in front of Lundqvist. With Keith Tkachuk setting a screen in front of the Rangers' net, Zhitnik unleashed a 45 foot slap shot that sailed past Lundqvist on the stick side. It was Zhitnik's sixth goal of the season and the second overtime goal by the Thrashers against the Rangers in 2006-07, following a Nov. 28 tally by Bobby Holik at MSG.
Friday's third-period shot differential, a 15-4 advantage for the Rangers, was typical of the game. The visitors threw everything they had at their hosts, but could not beat an unheralded but hot backup goaltender making his first start in nearly a month.
Hedberg's most spectacular save – and there were many on Friday – came late in the third period against the Rangers' Petr Prucha.
With six seconds remaining in a holding penalty to Zhitnik, Prucha took a backhand pass from Jagr just outside the crease to Hedberg's left. Prucha rifled a quick shot, but Hedberg managed to flop down and stop it with his glove as the puck began its arc up toward the top part of the net. The save left Prucha shaking his head in disbelief with only 2:20 remaining in regulation.
Zhitnik had earlier taken a hooking penalty in the third period, and Hedberg came up with another big stop against Cullen, breaking into the zone at the four-minute mark. The Rangers continued to apply pressure throughout the period, wearing down a tired Thrashers team that had lost at Philadelphia one night earlier. Unfortunately, the one fresh player in Atlanta's lineup was the goaltender who refused to lose.
Sean Avery was the only Rangers player to beat Hedberg on Friday, as he notched his third goal in a Rangers uniform with only 53 seconds remaining in the first period. Indeed, the patient Blueshirts had the last laugh in the opening 20 minutes after weathering a tremendous storm that included a 67-second 5-on-3 for the high-scoring Thrashers.
Lundqvist had been the difference in the first period, and the Rangers' penalty killers were also outstanding in killing off the two-man advantage that resulted from back-to-back penalties against David Liffiton and Michal Rozsival with just over six minutes remaining.
Energized by that penalty kill, the Blueshirts began pressuring Hedberg more toward the end of the period. Hedberg was forced to make tough saves against Ryan Callahan and 16:57 and Brandon Dubinsky at 17:16.
Both Callahan and Dubinsky were among the most aggressive players on the ice Friday, combining for seven of the Rangers' 39 shots. They were also two of the five rookies who played for the Blueshirts on Friday due to the injury bug that has hit the team of late. Missing from the lineup were forwards Brendan Shanahan and Marcel Hossa and defensemen Karel Rachunek and Fedor Tyutin.
On their next trip up the ice after Hedberg denied the rookies, the more experienced Rangers veterans capitalized on a scoring opportunity.
Defenseman Paul Mara made it all happen, taking the puck behind the Atlanta net to Hedberg's right and passing back behind the net to Michael Nylander, rather than to Jagr, who was looking to establish position outside the crease. With the Atlanta defenders drawn to Jagr, Nylander fed a perfect pass to Avery, who rifled a shot from the right faceoff circle for a 1-0 Rangers lead at 19:07.
The Rangers could not carry the momentum of their late first-period goal far into the second, because Hedberg took over at that point. His first big save came against Jagr at 7:18, when he kicked his right pad out to stop a wide open shot from just outside the crease.
Later in the period, Hedberg also managed to get a pad on Callahan's backhand after Callahan and Cullen broke into the Atlanta zone on a 2-on-1. Callahan, called up on Thursday to replace Ryan Hollweg while Hollweg recovers from the flu, nearly scored his first NHL goal in his third NHL game.
The Thrashers goalie was also his team's best penalty-killer in the second period, enabling Atlanta to survive three Rangers power-play opportunities resulting from calls against Ilya Kovalchuk, Eric Belanger and Scott Mellanby. Atlanta also had three power-play opportunities in the period, but Lundqvist and the Rangers penalty killers were barely tested.
Hossa got the second period's lone goal at the 2:51 mark, when he deflected Kovalchuk's shot from the right circle up into the right side of the net. It was a brilliant play by the Thrashers' top scorer and just about the only type of shot capable of beating Lundqvist in the game's first 60 minutes.
Lundqvist had been at his very best in stopping 10 shots in the first period, making several spectacular saves, and the Blueshirts held off the Thrashers long enough for Avery to capitalize.While Avery's goal was the payoff, it was Lundqvist who truly earned the lead for the Rangers with his sensational play s that stifled the Thrasher's big guns.
Lundqvist made his first big stop at the 6:15 mark, denying Belanger on a semi-breakaway. Only 42 seconds later, the Rangers netminder made stunning saves against Kovalchuk and Greg de Vries. After making the first stop on Kovalchuk, Lundqvist was temporarily out of position, but dove back to his right for a remarkable glove save on de Vries' shot from the slot at 7:02.
An additional save followed against Hossa's stuff-in attempt at 12:08, and just over 30 seconds later, Liffiton took a holding penalty to give the Thrashers their first power play. Rozsival went off with 1:07 left in the Liffiton call, but the Rangers stood up to the Thrashers' power-play unit, and Lundqvist had to make only one major save -- against Scott Mellanby as time ran out in the second penalty.
The Rangers, playing without two injured defensemen, got a scare midway through the first period when Rozsival went down in a three-way collision and was accidentally hit in the face by Kovalchuk's stick. After missing only one shift, he was back on the ice to help kill the Liffiton penalty. He finished the game by leading all Blueshirts with 30:47 of ice time.