11 April 2007

Playoff preview: Atlanta Thrashers (3) vs. New York Rangers (6)


Series C - #3 Atlanta vs. #6 NY Rangers
Date Time (ET) Location Network
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.

New York should win the series: Henrik Lundqvist. King Henrik has been the best goaltender in the East for the past two months and can carry this team on his back. If he stones the big guns for Atlanta it can turn the series in New York's favour in a hurry. Have most fans forgotten about Jaromir Jagr? Only one season after finishing a tight second in the Hart Trophy voting, Jagr started this season slowly but it may surprise some to know that Jagr ended up with 96 points (eighth in the league), and scored 30 goals for the 15th straight season (joining Mike Gartner as the only players to achieve that feat). He may not offer the consistent dominant play he did last year or in classic seasons past, but his size and skill still make him a fearsome opponent. There are few more polarizing players in the league than the abrasive Sean Avery - acquired from the Los Angeles Kings in mid-season. Rangers fans have taken to him, while others see him as a cheap-shot artist and charlatan. Either way, he has the ability to throw opponents off their game and that can have a good effect for the Rangers.

New York should be afraid: Although they can ice four other 20+ goal scorers, the Rangers also have depth issues, perhaps more so than the Thrashers. They will be relying on a smaller set of players to lead the way, none more than Lundqvist who plays behind an unknown defence that can prove they belong with a good series. They'll need to play Atlanta's big three hard and knock them off the puck at every turn to have a chance.

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.

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