Stanley Cup Playoff Preview - Atlanta vs. NY Rangers

Stanley Cup Playoff Preview - Atlanta vs. NY Rangers

Stanley Cup Playoff Preview - Atlanta vs. NY Rangers

April 10th, 2007
(Sports Network) - The 2006-07 campaign will always be remembered as a banner year in the Atlanta Thrashers franchise, because it happens to be the first year the club made it to the postseason. The trick now is to make that initial visit to the playoffs a lengthy and memorable stay.

One thing the Thrashers have in their favor is a head coach who has won a Stanley Cup championship in Bob Hartley, who reached the pinnacle in 2001 with the Colorado Avalanche.

Hartley and general manager Don Waddell have transformed the Thrashers from just a group of talented young players into a cohesive unit.

One of the biggest moves Waddell has made, other than bringing Hartley into the fold, was trading Dany Heatley to Ottawa for Marian Hossa and Greg de Vries prior to the 2005-06 season. This was a classic case of a deal that helped both teams tremendously, as Heatley has scored 208 points in 164 games with the Sens and Hossa has posted 192 points in 162 contests with Atlanta.

Hossa was one of just seven players to reach the 100-point mark this season, as he set a career high in assists (57) while also tallying a team-high 43 goals.

Next to Hossa, Atlanta's top scoring threat is Russian winger Ilya Kovalchuk, who despite having a down season after his career year of 2005-06, still managed to notch 42 goals and 76 points.

Atlanta also improved its scoring depth and defensive unit at the trade deadline by landing a pair of quality veterans.

First, the Thrashers sacrificed a piece of their future by sending top-notch defense prospect Braydon Coburn to Philadelphia in exchange for Alexei Zhitnik, a puck-moving blueliner with 13 years of NHL experience. Zhitnik showed he was a good fit in his 18 games with the Thrashers by posting two goals and 12 assists in that span.

Atlanta also added power forward Keith Tkachuk just before the trade deadline, a move that has paid off as well. The 35-year-old Tkachuk has 473 goals in his career and notched 15 points (7 goals, 8 assists) in 18 games since coming over in the trade with St. Louis.

As far as goaltending is concerned, the Thrashers rely on the young backstop Kari Lehtonen. The 23-year-old Finn had a breakout year in 2006-07, setting career highs in games played (68), wins (34) and shutouts (4). Lehtonen also had a solid .912 save percentage to go with a 2.79 goals against average.

Atlanta has struggled on special teams this season, finishing 26th in the NHL with a 79.8 penalty-killing percentage and 24th with a 16.5 percentage on the power play.

NEW YORK RANGERS (6th seed, East)

REGULAR SEASON RECORD: 42-30-10

2006 PLAYOFFS: Lost 4-0 to New Jersey, conference quarterfinals

The New York Rangers are certainly chomping at the bit to get the postseason started after the debacle that was last year's brief and anticlimactic playoff appearance.

After missing the playoffs for seven straight campaigns, the Blueshirts finally made a return to the NHL's second season in 2006. However, the rival New Jersey Devils made quick work of the Rangers, as they outscored New York 17-4 in a four-game sweep.

Last year's postseason disaster was prefaced by a dreadful end to the regular season, as New York dropped its last five games of the 2005-06 season. However, this year the Rangers finished strong down the stretch, playing their best hockey in March and ending the regular season with eight victories in 11 contests.

The Rangers hope goaltender Henrik Lundqvist's excellent play late this season will carry over into the playoffs and make a second-straight postseason meltdown unlikely. The 25-year-old Swedish netminder was 37-22-8 with a .917 save percentage, 2.34 goals against average and five shutouts in 70 games.

Lundqvist also boated an impressive 11-2-4 mark over his final 18 games of this season.

Jaromir Jagr was the key contributor for the Rangers on offense this year and picked up the slack when Brendan Shanahan was on the shelf with a concussion from February 17-March 21.

Jagr notched 96 points (30 goals, 66 assists) while playing all 82 games this season, marking the second straight year that the Czech superstar played every contest during the regular season.

Shanahan, meanwhile, was on his way to a fantastic campaign until the concussion. The 38-year-old winger still finished with 62 points (29 goals, 33 assists) in 67 games.

Also having strong offensive seasons for New York were center Michael Nylander (83 points) and versatile forward Martin Straka (70). And it would also be a mistake to forget about gritty forward Sean Avery, who was acquired in a trade with Los Angeles in early February and had 20 points (8 goals, 12 assists) in 29 games with New York.

Michal Rozsival was the Rangers' best offensive defenseman in 2006-07, as he notched 40 points (10 goals, 30 assists) and helped New York field the league's eighth-best power-play unit.

In terms of stay-at-home defenseman, the Rangers possess a big body in 31- year-old Marek Malik. The 6-6, 238-pound Czech blueliner led the Blueshirts with a plus-32 rating and even managed to post two goals and 19 assists.

MATCHUP

The Rangers' determined play in the final months of this season was in stark contrast to the way they backed into the playoffs one year ago, and should not be overlooked in this series.

Despite the seeding differences, Atlanta finished just three points ahead of New York this season and even displayed some of the consistency problems that plagued the Rangers earlier in 2006-07.

This should be a tight series and will likely be decided by either team's ability to stop the opposition's top guns. The Rangers are the more physical of the two clubs and that could help throw Hossa and company off their games.

In this year's season series, the Thrashers held the upper hand by winning three of the four matchups.

Hartley will be sure that Atlanta is prepared for the playoffs, but the franchise must be careful not to be happy with simply making the postseason or it will wind up like last year's Rangers.

However, the fact that the Rangers faded greatly in 2006 shouldn't be a concern, because head coach Tom Renney was able to fix that problem towards the end of this most recent campaign.

Sports Network predicted outcome: Rangers in 7

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