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Rangers slip, but don't fall with loss

by Staff Writer / New York Rangers

Rangers forward Brandon Prust, named the winner of the Steven McDonald Extra Effort Award prior to the game, outraces Atlanta's Zach Bogosian to the boards behind the Thrashers net on Thursday night.

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By Jim Cerny,

Throughout their mad dash down the stretch -- chasing after a playoff berth in the Eastern Conference -- one constant for the Rangers was that they controlled their own fate.

The Blueshirts can still get into a fifth Stanley Cup playoffs over the past six seasons, but they will now need a bit of outside help following their 3-0 loss to the Atlanta Thrashers on Thursday night at Madison Square Garden.

Still holding the final playoff berth in the NHL’s Eastern Conference with 91 points, the Rangers have two more points than ninth-place Carolina. However,  the Blueshirts have only one game left to play, while the Hurricanes have two.

The magic number for the Blueshirts to clinch a playoff spot remains at three, meaning that should the Rangers defeat the Devils in their final regular-season game Saturday afternoon at The Garden, they would only need Carolina to drop one of its four possible remaining points– or Buffalo to drop all four of its remaining possible points – to clinch a playoff playoff berth.

While the Rangers will return to practice on Friday afternoon, their focus will shift later on to that evening’s contest down in Atlanta between the Thrashers and Hurricanes. A loss of any kind by Carolina on Friday night -- either in regulation or overtime -- would put the Rangers in a win-and-in scenario on Saturday afternoon when they skate against the Devils.

“We didn’t play well, and let’s face it, we laid an egg,” Rangers head coach John Tortorella said of Thursday’s performance. “We need to move by this as quickly as possible. I know this team will be ready to play against New Jersey. But all this loss means is that we lost control and now we have to hope for help from someone else. Obviously we have to watch the scoreboard now.”

Rangers goaltender Henrik Lundqvist finished with 23 saves on Thursday night and had to make some truly spectacular stops against dangerous Atlanta players Evander Kane and Dustin Byfuglien.
If Carolina loses Friday night, it would mark the second consecutive season that the Rangers would be in a win-and-in situation in their 82nd and final game of the season. Even if Carolina wins on Friday, a Rangers victory would force the Hurricanes to win again in the second game of a back-to-back set on Saturday night against Tampa Bay. Thus, the Blueshirts would have a second shot at the playoffs as long as they can beat the Devils.

Buffalo’s performance would also affect the picture. If the Sabres lose both of their remaining games in regulation time, the Rangers could also get into the playoffs with a win on Saturday.

“It’s reality, it’s where we’re at,” said center Brian Boyle. “We had control of our destiny and now it’s up in the air, so we have to hope for a break. But we have to go out and be ready to play on Saturday. We’re going to have to answer the bell.”

The Rangers had a strong start to Thursday’s game, but could not sustain any momentum against an inspired Thrashers squad. Scoreless after one period of play, the game shifted decidedly in the visitors’ favor in the second when the Thrashers scored twice in a span of 15 seconds -- Rob Schremp scored on a screened right wing blast at 7:42, and Andrew Ladd netted his 28th goal off a breakaway at 7:57.

Eric Boulton deflected a pass past Henrik Lundqvist 4:19 into the third to squash any hopes of a Rangers’ comeback, and goaltender Ondrej Pavelec went on to record a 29-save shutout.

“I had a good feeling going into the game, but they took advantage of our mistakes,” said Lundqvist, who stopped 23 shots. “I’m definitely disappointed. We’ve been going pretty good for the last month and a half and we’d like to be in a better spot, but we’re not. Now we just cross our fingers that we do our job on Saturday and that we get some help.”

Rangers forward Brian Boyle crunches Atlanta star defenseman Dustin Byfuglien into the the boards during Thursday night's second period at MSG.
Coming off hugely important and emotional victories over the Flyers and the Bruins in their previous two matches, the Rangers never were able to find the same intensity in their collective game on Thursday against the Thrashers. As a result, this upcoming weekend looms as an exciting -- as well as nerve-racking -- time for the Blueshirts.

“It’s hard to tell what happened,’ said defenseman Dan Girardi, who blocked a team-high four shots. “We were a step behind, late to get to pucks. We had some chances, but just couldn’t bury it. Now we lost the driver’s seat. Now we have to watch happens around the league and hopefully get some help and then win our last game.”

That their fate is going to be decided in Game No. 82 does not come as a total shock to Tortorella.

“I felt this coming the past three weeks,” said Tortorella. “We’ve been on a pretty good ride, but Carolina keeps on winning, Buffalo keeps on winning, so this doesn’t surprise me at all. Tonight’s game surprises me, but it doesn’t surprise me that it’s taking us to Game 82. But we’ll be ready to play Saturday.”

The Rangers and Devils will clash in a 12:30 P.M. start on Saturday afternoon. Meanwhile the Hurricanes will close out their regular season later that evening against the Tampa Bay Lightning.

“(The Devils) want to end their season on a good note and they don’t want to see us in the playoffs,” said Lundqvist. “It will be an exciting game. I look forward to it.”
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