Shortly after the 4-2 loss to the Rangers on Wednesday night that finished New York’s four-game sweep, 40-year-old forward Scott Mellanby hinted his career was finished after 21 NHL seasons. “We’ll see,” the grizzled veteran said. “I think that’s about it. I’ve thought about it and I know what I’m going to do. I’ll wait a couple of days.”
That’s just about as long as the Thrashers lasted in the playoffs after getting into the tournament for the first time by winning the Southeast Division title. The previous two Stanley Cup winners – Tampa Bay and Carolina – took that road to the title, so the faithful in “Blueland” hoped their team might make a similar run.
“We weren’t even close to being competitive in the playoffs,” said forward Bobby Holik, a two-time champion with New Jersey. “There should be no sense of accomplishment whatsoever.”
The Thrashers, 3-1 against the Rangers in the regular season, didn’t come close to matching that success in the playoffs. They lost two one-goal decisions at home and then were demolished 7-0 in Game 3 when Kari Lehtonen got shelled after sitting out the game before in favour of Johan Hedberg.
The move back to Lehtonen by coach Bob Hartley was curious at best since Hedberg made 37 saves in Game 2 and couldn’t be faulted for either goal the Rangers scored. Lehtonen, the No. 2 overall pick in the 2002 draft and presumed Thrashers goalie of the future, was touched for four goals in the series-opening loss.
Unsettled goaltending and the virtual disappearance of top scoring threats Marian Hossa, Slava Kozlov and Ilya Kovalchuk made the series seem every bit the blowout the sweep suggests.
Hossa, the team leader this season with 43 goals and a career-high 100 points, managed only one assist in the series – helping to set up Greg de Vries’ second-period goal Wednesday that gave Atlanta a 2-1 lead.
Kozlov, second with 80 points, was blanked in the four games. Kovalchuk had a goal and assist after scoring 42 goals in the regular season.
“I don’t think I played my best but I worked hard,” said Kovalchuk, the No. 1 pick in the 2001 draft. “I just need to prepare myself like I did before this season so we can get to the playoffs next year because that is the best hockey.”
Not for Atlanta this time around. The Thrashers put up a fight after the demoralizing shutout loss in Game 3, but the next-day turnaround at Madison Square Garden was too much to overcome.
Atlanta didn’t lead in the series until the final game when they went ahead twice. But the advantages lasted a total of seven minutes 11 seconds.
“We were kind of embarrassed (Tuesday) night,” Hedberg said. “We truly believed we could turn this thing around. The Rangers played tremendously well defensively the whole series. I didn’t know they were capable of doing that. They got the timely goals. Maybe they were just a little bit better than us.”
Rangers fans were ready to celebrate the team’s first playoff win in a decade, and the Thrashers were merely the team in the way. After the series-ending handshake line, the music that escorted the players off the ice was “The Night They Drove Old Dixie Down” by The Band.
That pretty much summed up a series in which New York held advantages of 17-6 in goals and 143-99 in shots.
“It feels really empty when you lose four in a row,” Kovalchuk said. “That is really disappointing.”