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Rangers place sixth, open playoffs in Atlanta

by Staff Writer / New York Rangers

Henrik Lundqvist made 28 saves for the Rangers on Saturday night, but fell short of registering his 38th win of the season.

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The Rangers didn't get the final score they wanted on Saturday night in Pittsburgh, but thanks to some help from the Atlanta Thrashers team they will meet next week in the playoffs, the Blueshirts got the net result they had worked so hard for since the Feb. 27 trade deadline.

Despite a 2-1 loss to the Penguins at Mellon Arena, the Rangers held on to sixth place in the NHL's Eastern Conference and avoided a first-round playoff matchup with New Jersey. The Thrashers opened the door for the Blueshirts by beating Tampa Bay in a shootout on the same Philips Arena ice where they will host the Rangers for the upcoming Games 1 and 2 of the conference quarterfinals.

Only one playoff berth remains undecided. The final spot, currently occupied by Toronto, could still go to the Islanders if the Isles beat New Jersey on Sunday. If that happens, it will mark the first time since 1994 that all three New York-area NHL teams have qualified for the playoffs in the same season.

Sixth place meant a lot to the Rangers on Saturday, and their outstanding play in the third period made that clear. Trailing the Pens 2-0 after two periods, the Blueshirts came on like gangbusters in the third, scoring their lone goal early in the period and then relentlessly pressuring Pittsburgh the rest of the way as they tried to gain the one point needed to wrap up sixth place without any help from Atlanta.

The tying goal never came, because Penguins goalie Marc-Andre Fleury refused to let it happen. Fleury stopped 11 shots in the final period, as the Rangers outshot their hosts 12-6. He saved one of his best stops for last, robbing Rangers captain Jaromir Jagr with his glove at 15:28. Jagr's shot, a bullet from the left faceoff circle, came just under a minute into the Rangers' final power-play opportunity. That man-advantage resulted from an unsportsmanlike conduct penalty against Jarkko Ruutu that was artfully drawn by Blueshirts forward Sean Avery, who goaded Ruutu into dropping his gloves at 14:35 of the third.

Although they came up short of the win, the Rangers ended the regular season playing precisely the sort of hockey that lifted them from 12th to sixth place over the final six weeks of the season. The focus was on defense first, the goaltending was sharp, and the Blueshirts outscored their opponents 1-0 at even strength.

That six-week stretch saw the Rangers finish up their season on a 13-3-4 run, making Saturday's loss only the third in regulation over the season's final 20 games. The Blueshirts played playoff-style hockey for that entire surge and will head for Atlanta as one of the most finely-tuned teams entering the postseason.

Indeed, it was only a pair of second-period power play goals that kept the Rangers from winning on Saturday. Both were the result of outstanding plays by the Penguins' 19-year-old phenom, Sidney Crosby, who added two assists to nail down the Art Ross Trophy as the NHL's leading scorer with 120 points.

The Rangers' goal, meanwhile, was also created by two of the team's younger players. Petr Prucha got the goal at 1:50 of the third, but it was a heads-up play by rookie Ryan Callahan that made it possible.

Finding a seam in the Atlanta defense, Callahan broke over the blueline along the right boards and unleashed a 41-foot slap shot from the top of the right circle. Fleury made the save with his pads, but the puck rebounded right to a charging Prucha in the slot. Prucha's 22nd goal of the season, smacked into an unguarded net while Fleury was still down, ended up as the Blueshirts' final regular-season goal of 2006-07 – a magical campaign that featured one of the great turnarounds in team history.

While Fleury was the hero down the stretch for Pittsburgh, Henrik Lundqvist also had a big night in goal for the Rangers, matching Fleury with 28 saves on the night. Right to the end, Lundqvist was on his game, making perhaps his best save of the evening on a shorthanded try by Ryan Malone, who had taken a perfect pass from Jordan Staal at 15:41.

The Rangers dominated play in the Pittsburgh zone for most of the final period, but could not overcome the damage done by Crosby and the Penguins power play in the second.

Crosby set up both of the Pittsburgh goals, as the Pens capitalized on two of three man-advantages in the middle period to forge a two-goal lead out of what had been a tight-checking, scoreless game. Pittsburgh was also able to build up its lead with help from Fleury, who stopped 11 second-period shots.

Up until Pittsburgh's power play got untracked, Lundqvist had managed to keep the dangerous Penguins offense at bay. He made 10 saves in the first period and 12 in the second, but he was left at the mercy of the Crosby-charged power play.

Although Crosby had been neutralized in the first period, he quickly made his presence felt in the second during a Pittsburgh power play that carried over from the first period.

Just 53 seconds into the period, and with only 28 seconds left in a hooking call against Brad Isbister, the Penguins took control in the Rangers zone. Crosby and defenseman Sergei Gonchar exchanged a series of passes before Crosby finally unleashed a quick-release shot from the right side of the ice. The rebound came right onto the stick of 40-year-old veteran Gary Roberts, who slid a soft shot through Lundqvist's pads for a 1-0 lead.

The Rangers got a power play chance of their own at 3:05 of the second when Callahan drew a tripping penalty against Mark Recchi. The Blueshirts managed one shot at Marc-Andre Fleury during the man-advantage, but their best scoring opportunity, a shot by Prucha from the slot, sailed just wide of the net.

Only 69 seconds after the Recchi penalty expired, the Rangers power-play units got the chance to skate again when Pittsburgh's Georges Laraque was called for hooking Martin Straka in his own zone. The Blueshirts fired six shots at Fleury during the Laraque penalty, but could not beat the Pens goalie, who made his best save against Callahan's deflection of a Paul Mara drive from the right point. Fleury also caught a break when both Michal Rozsival and Prucha misfired on wide-open scoring chances.

Pittsburgh came back after killing the penalty to apply even more pressure on Lundqvist. The Pens' best chance came when Michel Ouellet was stopped on a backhander at 8:53. Keeping the pressure on, Pittsburgh eventually drew a power-play opportunity when Dan Girardi was called for tripping Colby Armstrong at 9:57.

The Penguins power play threw everything it had at Lundqvist during the Girardi penalty, but the Rangers penalty killers were able to get the job done, thanks to some help from the goal frame. Early in the man-advantage, Pittsburgh's Ryan Whitney hit the crossbar on a shot from the left circle that rebounded off the head of teammate Erik Christensen. Later, with only five seconds left in the power play, Mark Eaton hit the post with a blast from directly across from the Rangers net.

Pittsburgh did not waste a later opportunity, after the Rozsival went off for interference while the teams were skating 4-on-4.

With 41 seconds left in the Rozsival penalty, Crosby led the Pens again, sending a pass from just outside the trapezoid area behind Lundqvist's right shoulder to Recchi in front of the net for a 2-0 lead at 15:54.

Since both the Rangers and Penguins knew they would be playing their next games in the Stanley Cup playoffs, it was no surprise that the game took on the conservative look of a postseason game, and that only special-teams opportunities could swing the balance.

The Blueshirts and Pens were locked in a scoreless tie a first period n in which the home team had a 10-6 edge in shots on goal. Lundqvist was the story of that period for the Rangers, stopping all 10 Penguins shots in a performance that featured numerous spectacular saves.

After facing only two Pittsburgh shots over the first 5:07, Lundqvist made his first big save against Maxime Talbot's 42-foot wrister at the 5:52 mark. As the Penguins kept the puck in the Rangers zone, Lundqvist followed the Talbot save with an even tougher stop on Staal's 16-foot wrister just 13 seconds later.

Fleury made his best save of the first period against Matt Cullen at the 8:07 mark, after Cullen had taken a long, two-line pass and burst into the Penguins zone for a long slap shot that Fleury smothered.

Pittsburgh's power play got only one opportunity to work in the opening period, and the Rangers' penalty killers completely shut the Pens down by refusing to allow a single Pittsburgh shot.

The Penguins went on the power play once again with only 39 seconds remaining in the period when Isbister was called for hooking in the defensive zone. Pittsburgh only one shot during their abbreviated power play, and Lundqvist was forced to make another stop when a centering pass deflected off teammate Avery toward the goal.

Pittsburgh, however, regrouped in the second period and managed to get the game's first goal from the balance of that Isbister penalty.

The Rangers finished 1-2-1 at Pittsburgh this season, with their victory coming on an overtime goal by Straka last Nov. 25. The teams could potentially meet again in the second or third round of the playoffs.
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