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Surge took Blueshirts all the way to Atlanta

by Staff Writer / New York Rangers

Michal Rozsival and the Rangers open the Eastern Conference quarterfinals on Thursday night at Atlanta's Philips Arena -- the first Stanley Cup playoff game in that building's history.

Jagr on facing the Thrashers WMP

Coach Renney Discusses the Playoffs WMP
Shanahan On Rangers-Thrashers Series WMP

The quote of the year about the New York Rangers team that opens its playoff schedule Thursday night in Atlanta might actually have been uttered by New Jersey Devils forward Jim Dowd, of all people.

Back on Feb. 22, when the Rangers had lost two of three games and were about to lose two more, Dowd explained to reporters why he did not want the Blueshirts to make the playoffs.

"That team's a scary team," Dowd said. "If they get on a roll, you don't want to play them."

Talk about prophetic words. Neither Dowd nor anyone else could have known that the Blueshirts were just five days away from beginning a remarkable 13-3-4 run that would lift them all the way up to sixth place in the NHL's Eastern Conference. What Dowd feared has come true in every sense, and the New York Rangers enter the 2007 Stanley Cup Playoffs as one of the hottest NHL teams since the trade deadline.

The Rangers are one of only four teams with 30 total points since the league stopped swapping players on Feb. 27. The others are fellow playoff entrants Dallas, Pittsburgh and San Jose. Only San Jose reached its 30 points in fewer games, which makes the Rangers the hottest Eastern team over the 20 games heading into the postseason.

It's a completely different world from one year ago, when a banged-up Blueshirts squad hobbled into the playoffs on the heels of five straight losses and was promptly swept by New Jersey. This time around, there's no telling how far the team can go, and given how well they match up against Atlanta, this first-round series should be as exciting as playoff hockey can get.

Of course, these Rangers have been playing playoff-style hockey for six weeks now, knowing that every loss could cost them a berth. The Thrashers haven't been under as much pressure, but they have felt the heat from Tampa Bay, which was challenging to knock them out of the division lead as late as the final days of the regular season.

There are many similarities between the Rangers and Thrashers, but one is particularly striking. Just as the Rangers last year ended a long playoff dryspell, Atlanta is in a similar position this time around, preparing to play the first playoff series in its history.

The Thrashers entered the NHL in 1999, and had played 574 regular-season games before finally getting the chance to go to the postseason. Only the early Washington Capitals teams went more years without obtaining a playoff berth.

The pressure to make the playoffs in Atlanta was so great last season that general manager Don Waddell at one point guaranteed Thrashers fans that his team would get there. Unfortunately, Waddell was one year off in his prediction, but there is no doubt that this team has broken new ground, and the mere fact of being in the playoffs after so many years of striving for it, could either motivate the Thrashers or find them resting on laurels before the "second season" truly begins.

When the Rangers were bounced from the postseason last year, head coach Tom Renney first told them to focus on the pain they felt and use that memory as a motivating factor for making a long run in 2007. That chance to cash in that adversity has finally come, and the experience of 2006 will surely not be lost on any of the Rangers players who were part of the team a year ago.

Others who have joined the Rangers since 2006 will be huge additions in a postseason environment. Alternate captain Brendan Shanahan is one of the great playoff leaders of his generation, having played on three Stanley Cup champions, and center Matt Cullen was part of the Carolina team that won the Cup last year. At the other extreme, there are the team's rookies and veterans like Sean Avery, who will be getting their long-awaited first taste of the NHL playoffs this season.

The combination of players who went through 2006 and newcomers is well suited to approach the 2007 playoffs with a full understanding of what they begin upon this month – the toughest tournament in professional sports.

Atlanta also has a player from the 2006 Rangers playoff team on its roster in Steve Rucchin, but ironically, he is the one member of the Thrashers who will miss the series due to injury. While his veteran presence will be missed, Atlanta does have considerable depth in its forwards and a talented European goaltender – a roster model that should be familiar to Blueshirts fans.

All season long, the bulk of the Rangers' scoring came from four players – Jaromir Jagr, Michael Nylander, Martin Straka and Shanahan. Similarly, the Thrashers relied on their big four – Marian Hossa, Ilya Kovalchuk, Vyacyheslav Kozlov and late addition Keith Tkachuk – for much of their offense this season.

And just as Henrik Lundqvist has led the way in goal for the Rangers, his former European rival Kari Lehtonen has been the main man for Atlanta. Lundqvist and Lehtonen go back to the 2002 World Junior Championships, when Lehtonen was named the top goaltender while playing for Finland, edging Lundqvist, who had starred for Sweden that year.

Despite all the similarities between the Rangers and Thrashers, there are fundamental differences as well. The first is a basic question of philosophy. The Blueshirts began having great success when they clamped down defensively after the All-Star break and began taking fewer risks in the offensive zone, thereby allowing fewer odd-man rushes.

Atlanta, on the other hand, is a run-and-gun team that isn't afraid to leave itself exposed on the back end. The Thrashers work on getting the best possible shots for their big four scorers, and that can put more pressure on Lehtonen if the puck comes back the other way.

The Thrashers have struggled with their special teams. They were the only team with a power play under 17 percent to reach this year's playoffs and their penalty killing is even weaker, ranking only 26th out of 30 NHL teams. The Blueshirts are much more efficient in special-teams play, which is where this series will likely be decided.

Rangers (42-30-10) vs. Atlanta Thrashers (43-28-11)

Series Schedule

Game 1 -- April 12 Rangers at Atlanta, 7 p.m.
Game 2 -- April 14 Rangers at Atlanta, 3 p.m.
Game 3 -- April 17 Rangers vs. Atlanta at MSG, 7 p.m.
Game 4 -- April 18 Rangers vs. Atlanta at MSG, 7 p.m.
Game 5* -- April 20 Rangers at Atlanta, TBD
Game 6* -- April 22 Rangers vs. Atlanta at MSG, 1 p.m.
Game 7* -- April 23 Rangers at Atlanta, 7 p.m.
* -- if necessary

Regular Season Statistics

STANDINGS: Thrashers -- 97 points, 1st place, Southeast Division. Rangers -- 94 points, 3rd place, Atlantic Division

TEAM LEADERS: Thrashers -- Marian Hossa, 43 goals, 57 assists and 100 points; Keith Tkachuk, 126 PIM. Rangers -- Jaromir Jagr, 30 goals, 66 assists and 96 points; Sean Avery, 174 PIM.

SPECIAL TEAMS: Thrashers -- Power play: 16.5 percent (67 for 407, 23rd in NHL). Penalty killing: 79.8 percent (313 for 391, 26th in NHL). Rangers -- Power play: 18.5 percent (75 for 406, 8th in NHL). Penalty killing: 83.8 percent (335 for 400, 12th in NHL).

GOALTENDERS: Thrashers -- Kari Lehtonen (34-24-9, 4, 2.79); Johan Hedberg (9-4-2, 0, 2.89). Rangers -- Henrik Lundqvist (37-22-8, 5, 2.34); Stephen Valiquette (1-2-0, 0, 3.13); Kevin Weekes (4-6-2, 0, 3.39)

2006-07 SEASON SERIES: Thrashers, 3-1-0 (Rangers, 1-1-2)

2006-07 RESULTS:

Nov. 10, 2006; Rangers 5, Atlanta 2 at Philips Arena. Overwhelming the Thrashers from start to finish, the Rangers rolled to what at the time was their fourth straight road win and their fifth consecutive game earning at least one point in the standings. Michael Nylander scored twice -- including a goal just 15 seconds into the game -- as the Rangers rode a tremendous first-period performance to a big early lead and then clamped down defensively over the final two periods.

Nov. 28, 2006: Rangers 4, Atlanta 5 (OT) at Madison Square Garden. The Rangers fell to the Thrashers 5-4 when Bobby Holik scored the winner just under three minutes into overtime. The Rangers had led 3-1 in the second period before the Thrashers came back for a 4-3 lead midway through the third. Taking advantage of a late 5-on-3 power play opportunity, the Blueshirts forced the overtime on Nylander's goal with only 2:30 to go in regulation.

Jan. 20, 2007: Atlanta 3, Rangers 1 at Madison Square Garden. A tight game ended with a Thrashers victory, sealed by an empty-net goal. It was a tough way for the Rangers to hit the NHL All-Star break, as they lost at home despite several spectacular saves by Lundqvist. Both Lundqvist and the Lehtonen finished the game with 29 saves, but it was Lundqvist who made the biggest stop of the game, denying Marian Hossa on a penalty shot in the second period. Atlanta defenseman Niclas Havelid later broke a 1-1 tie at 8:09 of the third period with the game-winning goal.

March 16, 2007: Atlanta 2, Rangers 1 (OT) at Philips Arena. 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 backup goalie Johan Hedberg, who was clearly the difference in the game. Hedberg's 38-save performance was truly stunning, as he was robbing Rangers shooters left and right. Sean Avery was the only Rangers player to beat Hedberg, notching his third goal in a Rangers uniform with only 53 seconds remaining in the first period.

ROAD/HOME RECORDS: Thrashers -- 23-12-6 at home; Rangers -- 21-15-5 on road.
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