ATLANTA THRASHERS (3) vs. NEW YORK RANGERS (6)
|Series C - #3 Atlanta vs. #6 NY Rangers|
|Thu., April 12||7:00 p.m.||at Atlanta||TSN|
|Sat., April 14||3:00 p.m.||at Atlanta||NBC, TSN|
|Tue., April 17||7:00 p.m.||at NY Rangers||TSN|
|Wed., April 18||7:00 p.m.||at NY Rangers||TSN|
|*Fri., April 20||TBD||at Atlanta||TSN|
|*Sun., April 22||1:00 p.m.||at NY Rangers||NBC, TSN|
|*Mon., April 23||7:00 p.m.||at Atlanta||VERSUS, TSN|
The Atlanta Thrashers claimed their first-ever franchise playoff appearance and division crown, leading the weak Southeast division for nearly the entire season. The New York Rangers fought through the more difficult Atlantic division and ended up with only one fewer victory than Atlanta. Will this series be the toss-up it appears to be on paper?
Why Atlanta should win the series: Atlanta's top-end talent is impressive, starting with the big three of Marian Hossa (43 goals, 100 points), Slava Kozlov (80 points), and Ilya Kovalchuk (42 goals). The deadline addition of Keith Tkachuk was decent but he's hardly the player he used to be, and shouldn't be viewed as anything above a decent second-line winger. Atlanta's biggest difference-maker might be their slightly less-heralded February acquisition, veteran defender Alexei Zhitnik. Zhitnik scored 14 points in the 18 games since coming over from Philadelphia while logging huge amounts of icetime, averaging nearly 26 minutes per game and stabilizing the otherwise sketchy Atlanta defence. The team was 12-6 since his arrival which very well could have been the difference between winning the division (by four points) and finishing in the dreaded seven or eight slot in the East.
Why Atlanta should be afraid: Only by virtue of a shootout win in their season finale did the Thrashers end up with more goals scored than allowed on the season, not exactly the hallmark of a divison winner, let alone a championship-caliber squad. And despite the above platitudes to Zhitnik, the defence is otherwise built on more size, less skill which could prove fatal if the Thrashers find themselves in too many shorthanded situations - Atlanta killed penalties at a lame 79.8% clip this year - 26th in the league. Finally, if their top scorers are shutdown they become thin in a hurry - if they're counting on the likes of veterans Scott Mellanby and Bobby Holik to provide the offence, the team is done - their stars need to win this series for them. Goalie Kari Lehtonen trended towards mediocrity by the end of the season and needs to regain his early season form.
Random useless but fun playoff facts: Atlanta's previous entrant into the NHL - the Flames - made the playoffs six times in the late 70s but never got past the first round. Their biggest chance at success came in the spring of 1979 on the heels of a 327 goal season (third in the NHL). They were swept in a best-of-three preliminary round by Toronto then just over a year later played their final game - a playoff defeat at the hands of the New York Rangers - before taking up residence in Calgary, Alberta.
My pick: The Atlanta Thrashers really need to win this first round series, as at the trading deadline the fans may have been sent a message they don't fully understand. In exchange for Tkachuk and Zhitnik, Atlanta sold quite a bit of their future (including three high draft picks and bluechip defence prospect Braydon Coburn) for two players who have just as much chance playing elsewhere than Atlanta next season. Aside from dynamic center Bryan Little of the Ontario League's Barrie Colts, the Thrashers have a relatively bare cupboard of prospects (evidenced by their 26th place showing in the annual Hockey News Future Watch). Giving away a slew of high draft picks will only slow whatever progress is being made, so it's entirely plausible that Atlanta will regress a bit within the next few years in exchange for a shot at advancement this year.
But need itself rarely translates into tangible success. It's interesting to assess Atlanta's roster - when you get past the top few names it doesn't look too formidable, and their team stats scream mediocrity. Yet when you watch them play game after game they become one of those "greater than the sum of their parts" teams, attempting to play an up-tempo style.
I keep waffling on this one and perhaps leaning towards the Rangers simply based on history (which means nothing at this point), but in the end my gut tells me the Thrashers' explosive weapons will be too much for the more simple Rangers to overcome. Atlanta has a chance if their goaltender falters - New York doesn't. Atlanta in 7.