It wasn't pretty but I'll bet any diehard True Blue will take it. Thanks in large part to the NHL's most underrated player Sean Avery, the Rangers stole Game Two at an energized Philips Arena- taking the pivotal game 2-1 to move two up on the Thrashers in the best-of-seven First Round series.
The feisty Avery was a factor all game and factored in on both Blueshirt tallies. He caught a huge break to get his first NHL career playoff goal when a puck he dumped from center ice went off the boards and took a fluky bounce into a vacated net which put the club up early in the opening period. Atlanta backup Johan Hedberg was expecting the puck to go behind the net but it took an unusual Ranger bounce.
As expected, the Thrashers came with much more fire today and deserved a better fate to be perfectly honest. They controlled a large portion of the 60 minutes with a more effective forecheck and the same physicality they used late in Game One which almost resulted in overtime. However, for two-plus periods, the Rangers and Henrik Lundqvist wouldn't buckle.
Despite a few Atlanta power plays, New York's penalty killing was outstanding in containing the Thrashers by keeping them off balance with smart positioning and more aggressive play along the boards to clear the puck out. I would even see it's the best job I've seen from the forwards and D at being on the same page in terms of getting the puck out.
But finally, Atlanta's persistence paid off when grizzled veteran Keith Tkachuk setup Ilya Kovalchuk for a wicked one-timer from the right slot which found the back of the net through traffic. The fiery Russian sniper who netted 42 during the regular season had his first postseason goal was pumped up as was the crowd. Atlanta had the momentum and also would draw a power play but couldn't capitalize for the fifth time. Each team's special teams struggled combining to finish 0-for-12 on the day.
Most of the game, the Tom Renney's club wasn't able to work the puck deep and cycle due to a much more determined Thrasher D. In particular the Jaromir Jagr line had a quiet game except for one solid shift late. Maybe that's where it turned because not long after that, a hustling Avery negated an icing and then worked some magic behind the Atlanta goal. After getting a favorable bounce along the glass, the Ranger pest stayed with a loose puck in the left slot and found a wide open Brendan Shanahan for a slam dunk into an open net to put the Rangers up one with just 4:01 left.
Playing solid team defense, they protected the lead without much trouble. Even a late Shanahan crosschecking penalty with less than 30 to go couldn't stop them from getting a second straight 'W' in Hotlanta. They would work the puck out twice without the Thrashers getting a sniff. And when Atlanta reset for one last ditch effort in the neutral zone, a Marek Malik clear was followed by some more hustle from the game's No.1 Star in my book, Mr. Avery.
The undersized forward who logged over 21:00 (more than Jagr) would outrace Kovalchuk to a puck behind a vacated net and bang him with a clean hit. All game long, Avery took his lumps and delivered some as well in a more intensified game which was expected. The hit to the Atlanta superstar ticked him off and resulted in No.17 decking the mouth that never stopped for a retaliatory high hit which drew a roughing penalty and essentially ended the game for his team with 3.4 seconds left with a draw 90 feet away. Before that draw, a bloodied Avery smiled cause he knew he had done the job and played a whale of a game getting underneath the Thrashers' skin.
Not surprisingly, a game which Bob Hartley's club fought so hard in ended with a little more rough stuff as defenseman Andy Sutton caught Jed Ortmeyer with a cheap hit as the buzzer sounded. The play was uncalled for but also indicative of how hard Sutton plays. So it was naturally expected. He is Atlanta's best overall defenseman in terms of physicality. I've always been a fan. Clearly, he was just trying to send a message that his team might be down 2-0 but they're far from out with the series shifting to Broadway Tuesday night for what should be a fired up MSG capacity crowd. Along with family and friend, we'll be there cheering as loud as possible trying to drown out outstanding national anthem singer John Amirante and supporting my boys. Unlike last year when you knew they had no chance, this time should be great!
Here's a few observations from today's game:
-Hartley's decision to play Hedberg over a shaky Kari Lehtonen proved out to be right as the Moose played rock solid in stopping 37 of 39. I kind of believed that Hartley might go back to Lehtonen for Game 3 but after today's performance by Hedberg, how could he not come back with the Moose. He was oustanding and was a solid choice by the hockey beat writers for their No.1 Star. I would've made him second to Avery only cause his team fell short.
-Lundqvist was sharper today in making 27 saves to net his second consecutive playoff victory. Many of the King's stops were difficult due to the traffic Atlanta generated in front. Henrik definitely played an underrated game as NBC's Between The Glass look/sound alike Scott Hamilton Darren "Holy Jumping" Pang noted throughout. He earned that No.3 star in our book.
-Clearly, for the second straight game, defenseman Thomas Pock struggled. He was on for the only goal against and got just 8+ minutes from Renney. If Karel Rachunek is ready to go, expect him to be back in the lineup Tuesday night paired alongside Paul Mara.
-The Czech tandem of Marek "Big Bird" Malik and Michal Rozsival logged a ton of minutes but they didn't break in this one playing a steady game. I realize they get on everyone's nerves but today that duo didn't make any glaring mistakes and were very effective against Atlanta's forwards.
-Also thought rookie Daniel Girardi had a tough game again but battled through. He has looked a little nervous and for good reason. But the 22 year-old is a vital cog on the blueline and needs to relax. He'll be okay.
-For the second consecutive game, Girardi's partner Fedor Tyutin played extremely well. The baby faced Russian was solid in his end and jumped into the play picking up two assists though one was kind of lucky on that Avery tally. Tyutin has looked comfortable and is playing very good hockey as his four helpers and plus-two rating would indicate.
-The Rangers were beaten badly in the faceoff circle by Atlanta losing 36 of 51 draws. Somehow, top pivot Michael Nylander lost 17 of 18 which is just inexplicable. This can't happen again in three days.
-Club enforcer Colton Orr got only six shifts (3:43) and took an unsportsmanlike conduct penalty. What's the point of having him in if you're hardly going to use him? Next game, Ryan Hollweg needs to be back in.
-The Thrashers once again won the physical battle outhitting the Rangers 22-10. I still feel they need to be more physical because things can change in a hurry. Especially in a back-to-back situation Tuesday and Wednesday at home.
-While Kovalchuk and ex-Ranger Bobby Holik played well, Marian Hossa and Slava Kozlov were non-factors. That can't happen if Atlanta wants to get back in this series.
Our Three Stars:
3rd Star- Lundqvist (27 saves)
2nd Star- Hedberg (37 saves)
1st Star- Avery (goal, assist)
In the other NBC network game, the Penguins cameback to beat Ottawa 4-3 thanks to third period tallies from Jordan Staal and Sidney Crosby 2:10 apart. Crosby finished with a goal and assist while Calder frontrunner Evgeni Malkin added two helpers. The Pens overcame a 16 shot discrepancy as Ottawa outshot them 37-21. Marc-Andre Fleury rebounded from a tough game Wednesday night to make 34 stops in evening the best-of-seven series as it shifts to Mellon Arena.
The Devils and Lightning are scoreless a few minutes in. The Islanders and Sabres get underway in 20 minutes with Rick DiPietro back in goal for the crucial Game 2 at HSBC Arena.