New York – The Rangers were defeated tonight by the Atlanta Thrashers, 5-3, in front of another sold-out Garden crowd of 18,300. You have to give the Ranger faithful their due, they are a loyal bunch to their team which is now 3-7-1 in their last ten games and fell to a 10-8-1 overall record.
Ilya Kovalchuk, as usual, was the story. The Russian star, out since Oct. 24 when the Thrashers captain broke his right foot when struck by a puck, had a goal and two assists in leading his team. Kovalchuk had missed seven games in a row until tonight, but it looked like he hadn’t missed any time at all. He and his linemates had a big night. The victory was sealed when he and former Rangers forward Nik Antropov set up Maxim Afinogenov’s empty-netter in the closing seconds.
“Our line was clicking real well,” he said. “We all speak Russian, so it’s kind of cheating because they can’t understand what we’re saying.”
Kovalchuk also helped set up Rich Peverley’s power-play goal in the second period and then put Atlanta back in front after the Rangers tied it a second time.
Thrashers rookie Evander Kane, questionable because of a foot injury, chipped in with a goal and assist. Johan Hedberg stopped 33 shots while playing in his third straight for Atlanta, which won for the fourth time in six games. Colby Armstrong also scored.
Atlanta was 3-3 without Kovalchuk.
“It is pretty surprising to see a guy come back like that after being off for about three weeks,” Armstrong said. “To come back and be as smooth and as solid as he was is pretty incredible. The guy is a natural. He’s our leader, and he played well for us.”
Despite outshooting the Thrashers decisively (36-27), including an 18-5 advantage in the third period, the Rangers lost this game because they couldn’t seem to stay out of the penalty box and they couldn’t stop the Thrashers when they were a man short. Atlanta scored on two of five power plays, tonight.
The Rangers went into this game slumping and missing two of their most important players, Chris Drury and Brandon Dubinsky. Drury was out with a concussion and Dubinsky will be gone for several weeks more with a broken bone in his right hand he sustained blocking a Jay Bouwmeester shot early in the second period of the Rangers’ game against Calgary.
As a result, the thinnest position on the roster and in the organization has taken on a look of decided weakness. Vinny Prospal will shift back to center the first line. As of the moment, Artem Anisimov would be the second-line pivot. It looks like Brian Boyle will man the third-line center slot.
Ranger goalie, Henrik Lundquist returned from an eight day injury tonight and showed the quick reflexes and instincts he’s known for. He had to, as the Thrashers tested him throughout the first two periods.
“Of course I feel that I haven’t played in a while and to start the game giving up a goal right away was tough,” said Lundqvist. “The whole night was a big battle. They didn’t have that many shots but they got pretty big scoring chances. It was tough to play but I tried to stay in there and tried to play my game. I could feel some technical mistakes. I was happy with the way we played in the third.”
“We get a good start and they put it in the net,” Lundqvist added. “After that, we regrouped pretty well. It is tough to let in a goal like that right away, you get on your heels. We were 1-1 after the first. What killed us was five minutes of the second period. We played a great third period. The guys played really hard. We hit the post a couple of times. It was close, but it just wasn’t enough tonight.”
During the latter part of the second, the Rangers started to take the play to the Thrashers, peppering their goalie, Johann Hedberg with a variety of shots.
Marion Gabarik tied the game on a power play goal, his 13th of the season, when he took a pass from Michael Del Zotto, and he one-timed it inside the post to beat Hedberg. Gabarik now has six power play goals, tied for the league lead.
Almost a minute later. Kolvochuk put the Thrashers ahead with a powerful wrister from the right circle at 17:41. His shot was one only a world class hockey player could have pulled off.
Just 25 seconds later, at 18:06 of the period, Evander Kane, the Thrashers 18-year old rookie, put the next goal behind Lundqvist to break open the game, 4-2.
Atlanta were dominating play at this stage. The Rangers looked like they were stationery as the Thrashers were coming at Lundqvist in waves and getting shots on goal that looked like the Rangers had no chance of stopping.
The familiar sound of boos in Madison Square Garden rained down on the Rangers as the period buzzer sounded. The Knicks now have nothing on the Rangers as far as fan disappointment is concerned.
Artem Anisimov and Marian Gaborik erased one-goal deficits for the Rangers, and Lundqvist, who missed two games made 22 saves. Brian Boyle brought New York within 4-3 when he slammed in a rebound of Ales Kotalik’s shot 6:18 into the third.
The Rangers couldn’t tie it again despite two power plays and an 18-5 shots advantage. Kotalik ripped a drive from the blue line that was deflected before hitting the goal post with 8:47 remaining.
“We are not getting the results right now,” forward Vinny Prospal said. “The third period really showed how effective we can be playing 5-on-5 … we just can’t seem to stay out of the box.”
For Rangers head coach John Tortorella, his charge was to get his young team to tighten up defensively in the third period. The Rangers, playing without Dubinsky and Drury were weary and thinned-out, personnel-wise.
“We were bad defensively, I thought we were slow,” said Tortorella. “The first shift of the game, it’s two on two, both skaters skate right by our defense. You come off our road trip, and everyone goes through it, you end up trying to find your game early on in the game. It is hard. I thought we prepared, I thought we traveled correctly coming back from the West, I thought we practiced correctly. But, we were slow through the first half of the game.”
“As far as lineup changes, I am not sure what we are going to do. It is hard. The other games are spread out. Am I interested in playing guys 27, 28 minutes a game. No, I don’t think that’s a great situation. I am hoping other guys step up so they get the minutes. We will talk about it tomorrow and see where we go with it.”
“Obviously, Brandon and Drury are big players for our PK (penalty kills),” said Ryan Callahan. “Some of our guys stepped up and did a good job on the PK but we have to stay out of the penalty box.”
At 6:18 of the third, Brian Boyle, the Rangers 6’7” 250 pound center rebounded a slap shot from Alex Kotalik into the net behind Hedberg to bring the Rangers within one, 4-3. It was his second goal of the season.