Petr Prucha and the Rangers found themselves in a physical game with a fired-up Thrashers team on Thursday, but refused to buckle, even under late third-period pressure.
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Rest assured, Rangers fans, the team that roared through its final 20 regular-season games with a 13-3-4 record is the same one that showed up for the 2007 Stanley Cup playoffs.
The Blueshirts played a textbook version of their defense-first game on Thursday and got a supercharged performance from their reunited No. 1 line of Jaromir Jagr, Michael Nylander and Marcel Hossa in beating the Thrashers 4-3 at Atlanta's Philips Arena for a 1-0 lead in the Eastern Conference quarterfinals.
The victory was the Rangers' first in postseason since May 18, 1997, and it came in the first NHL playoff game in Atlanta Thrashers franchise history. With the win, the Rangers now have home-ice advantage for the remainder of the series, which they could win by prevailing in all three upcoming games at Madison Square Garden. Game 2 is on Saturday afternoon in Atlanta, and the series shifts to MSG for games on Tuesday and Wednesday night.
Facing a physical and determined Atlanta team spurred on by its boisterous home crowd, the Rangers built up a 4-2 lead heading into the third period and held on down the stretch after the Southeast Division champion Thrashers made it a one-goal game with 14:10 remaining.
"Whether it's the first one of the fourth one, it's a real good win," said Jagr. "We had the lead 2-0. That is danger for us, but we kept battling. I knew they were going to come back. That is the way they play."
Henrik Lundqvist was the difference in net for the Rangers, stopping 21 of 24 shots, but the skaters in front of him made sure he wouldn't have to work too hard for his first playoff victory. The Blueshirts outshot the Thrashers by a wide 38-24 margin and never trailed after taking the lead on a Jagr goal at 12:50 of the first.
Indeed, it wasn't until the game's final 71 seconds, when Atlanta pulled its goaltender for an extra attacker during a late power-play opportunity, that the outcome was ever in question. Up until that point, the Rangers had been cruising with two-goal leads of 2-0, 3-1 and 4-2 – keeping the Thrashers down at least one goal for 47 of the game's 60 minutes.
"I just tried to battle," Lundqvist said of the late Atlanta pressure. "It was a tough game. They are an intense team. We played great, a very solid game."
Jagr, Nylander and Hossa combined for six points on the evening, with each player scoring a goal. Jagr was the first to score, with Hossa and Nylander following in the second period. Defenseman Michal Rozsival had the other Blueshirts tally.
Leading 4-2 heading into the third period, the Rangers got a bit of a scare when former teammate Pascal Dupuis, who spent part in New York before being dealt to Atlanta at the Feb. 27 trade deadline, cut the lead to 4-3 at 5:50 of the third period.
That was as close as it would get, as the Rangers outshot the Thrashers 8-3 down the stretch to seal the win.
Even a late holding-the-stick penalty against Rangers defenseman Thomas Pock couldn't throw the Rangers off track on Thursday night. Pock's penalty was one of only two taken by the Rangers on the night, but they held together under the late pressure, and Atlanta's final chance to tie the game was lost when Vyacheslav Kozlov flipped the puck wide of the net in the closing seconds.
The game was effectively decided in the first two periods, when the Rangers made it clear that their 2007 playoff run would be every bit as exciting as the season-ending 20-game roll that got them there.
"We really tried to control the game by controlling ourselves, blocking shots, getting pucks out, and getting pucks in," said Rangers head coach Tom Renney, who also recorded the first playoff win of his NHL coaching career. "And that really is our way of managing the game."
Jagr, Nylander and Hossa were flying through 40 minutes, driving the Blueshirts into the 4-2 lead that would prove to be enough.
Nylander was absolutely dazzling in his performance, scoring a goal and assisting on two others, including the game's first tally by Jagr. His three points in 40 minutes were triple his production from the team's first-round series loss to New Jersey one year ago.
In fact, the Rangers played exactly the kind of game that the Devils handed them in their 2006 series opener, methodically grinding down a talented team that had been waiting a long time to participate in the playoffs.
Jagr, the player many expected to set the tone for the Blueshirts after missing most of those 2006 playoffs with an injury, wasted little time making his case on Thursday. He scored with 7:20 left in the opening period and then assisted on a power-play goal by Rozsival just three minutes later to give the Rangers a 2-1 lead.
While Jagr was the story in the first period, Nylander was the hero of the second, setting up a goal that gave the Rangers a two-goal lead and then restoring it after the Thrashers had quickly responded to the first Rangers tally.
Both second-period goals were a credit to Nylander's fire on the ice. His assist came on the Hossa goal, which gave the Rangers a 3-1 lead.
Hossa's found the net as a result of the relentless offensive play that has epitomized the Blueshirts since the trade deadline. After failing to convert a power play resulting from Alexei Zhitnik's holding penalty at 8:22, the Rangers refused to give up in the offensive zone, and it was Nylander doing much of the work.
With his power-play linemates going off for a change, Nylander remained in the zone, controlling the puck all over the ice with a dazzling display of stickhandling that took him from the left boards, around the back of the net, and up to the right point.
From there, he spotted defenseman Fedor Tyutin open at the other side of the ice. Nylander fed the puck across to Tyutin, who fired a shot on goal. Hossa, coming in toward the crease from the right side, caught enough of the puck to deflect it past goaltender Kari Lehtonen for a 3-1 lead at 10:52.
Hossa's goal was particularly impressive, coming in his first game back from a knee injury that had sidelined him for 16 games since early March. It also made him the first Hossa to score in the series, as he beat his higher-profile older brother, Marian Hossa, to the punch.
Hossa's return to health in time for the playoffs made this game a true family affair, since parents had flown in from Slovakia to be on hand for the entire series. The Hossas' father, Frantisek, coached the last Slovak Olympic team, which included both of his sons.
Atlanta came right back after Hossa's goal, however, to make it a one-goal game. Only 87 seconds after the Hossa goal, the Thrashers' Shane Hnidy connected from the top of the right circle, drawing the crowd back into the game.
Leading by only a goal, it was again Nylander who put the Rangers back into the driver's seat. This time around, he pounced on the rebound of a shot from Petr Prucha that Lehtonen had knocked down with his glove. Driving to the area just outside the crease to Lehtonen's right, Nylander dove to put the puck in the net before a defenseman could beat him to it at 16:56. Nylander's third point of the night gave the Rangers a 4-2 lead. In last year's playoffs, the Rangers did not score more than two goals in any game.
In the first period, Jagr's series-opening goal did much to quiet a very loud and excited crowd of Thrashers fans. While Jagr's threw the momentum to the Blueshirts, a follow-up power-play tally from Rozsival utterly silenced the fans until the final minute of the first when Eric Belanger deflected a shot past Lundqvist on the power play.
The first period was typical of playoff hockey, tight-checking, physical and heavily influenced by special-teams play. Jagr scored at even strength, but the other two goals came as the result of each team's lone first-period penalty.
"Maybe we were a little nervous out there, but we made a few adjustments and unfortunately we didn't win the game," said Atlanta coach Bob Hartley, who captured the Stanley Cup as Colorado's coach in 2001. "Now we have one game under our belt, and it's important that we keep going on what we built during the third period."
The Rangers outshot the Thrashers 13-8 in the first period, but needed just over 12 minutes to get to Atlanta Lehtonen, who would finish the night with 34 saves in defeat. The Finnish netminder came out strong from the start, stopping Matt Cullen from the left faceoff circle and 1:34 and Prucha from the right circle just 14 seconds later.
Lundqvist answered Lehtonen save-for-save in the tense opening minutes, making his best save of the period against Ilya Kovalchuk at 6:33.
The goaltenders remained the story until Jagr got the Rangers on the board first, capitalizing on a brilliant cross-ice backhand pass from Nylander at 12:50.
Just seconds after Jagr had missed wide of the net on a shot from the right faceoff circle, Nylander picked up the puck along the left boards at the edge of the left circle and threaded the needle back to Jagr, who had returned to the point of his original shot.
Taking the perfect pass at the right faceoff dot, Jagr one-timed home a slap shot that blew past Lehtonen for the 1-0 lead. Tyutin also assisted on the play, which capped off a sequence of tremendous offensive-zone pressure from the Rangers' No. 1 line.
Given the game's first power play, a holding call against Atlanta's Andy Sutton, the Rangers needed all of 16 seconds to grab a 2-0 lead. This time it was Jagr feeding Martin Straka along the right boards. Straka sent a cross-ice pass to Rozsival at the top of the left circle, and the defenseman fired it into the top right corner at 16:47.
Less than two minutes after scoring his goal, Rozsival took the first of only two Rangers penalties, and 19 seconds later, the Thrashers had cut the lead to 2-1. Belanger's goal came on a picture-perfect backhand deflection of a long shot by defenseman Niclas Havelid at 19:01. Standing directly in front of the crease, just to Lundqvist's left, Belanger deflected the puck past the goaltender's glove side for the first playoff tally in Thrashers history.
"We have to learn from tonight and move on to Saturday," said Belanger. "We can't get down, because we did a lot of good things."
Belanger's power-play goal was a rarity on Thursday, as only five total penalties were called against both teams.'
"I was really happy with the officiating," Renney said. "I think you have two teams out there who really respect each other."
Keeping the crowd at bay was a big priority for the Rangers. The fired-up Atlanta hockey fans had waited 27 years to see a Stanley Cup playoff game, and they made their presence known from the start, when their raucous cheering and negative chants directed at Lundqvist made it clear that the crowd was hostile, despite a smattering of friendly Rangers jerseys in the stands. The Thrashers' slogan is "Unleash the Fury", and apparently this was it.
The Rangers' got another taste of the crowd's potential after Dupuis woke them up with his third-period goal. Dupuis scored from the slot off a pass from Brad Larsen, who emerged from behind the net to Lundqvist's right before sliding the puck directly onto Dupuis' stick for a quick-release goal. That left the Rangers with 14:10 to protect their lead, and rather than sit back, the Blueshirts continued to apply pressure.
"They have so much scoring and so many talented guys," Jagr said of the Thrashers. They are able to come back from anything."
The game began with the air of a major event, complete with pyrotechnics that spewed from the overhanging Thrashers logos and a hyperactive mascot who rode a rope down from the ceiling. Nothing did more to knock the punch out of the home crowd, however, than the Rangers' scoring the first two goals.
"It was a good first game, and we will enjoy it tonight," said Lundqvist. "But we have to forget about it. We will move on and have a good practice tomorrow."