“Please, I ask you one favour, do not ask me about that,” Holik pleaded. “You have to ignore the situation.”
Unable to grow the traditional playoff beard, Lehtonen, 23, found another way to commemorate the Atlanta Thrashers’ first playoff appearance – a best-of-seven series with the New York Rangers that starts Thursday night in Atlanta.
After a sweaty practice Wednesday, lines of blue dye were mixed with the blonde, adding more shock to the goalie’s fashion statement. The blue was a nod to Blueland, the team’s nickname for its home, Philips Arena.
“I was trying to make it look nice, but that didn’t happen, so I think I can do something different for tomorrow night – something more normal,” Lehtonen said.
“Maybe in a couple years I can grow a nice beard, but now I do something else.”
Lehtonen had company. Defenceman Andy Sutton had an all-blue look.
“They went to get a paint job,” Thrashers coach Bob Hartley said. “They put a big smile on the players’ faces when they came in this morning. It’s all about fun.”
The Thrashers won the Southeast Division to land the No. 3 seed in the Eastern Conference, and they won three of four regular-season games against the Rangers, the No. 6 seed.
The Thrashers’ lack of playoff experience may negate their home-ice advantage.
Lehtonen and high-scoring Ilya Kovalchuk have never appeared in the playoffs.
By comparison, the Rangers will come to Atlanta with Jaromir Jagr, who won two Stanley Cups with Pittsburgh, and Brendan Shanahan, who won three in Detroit.
Even the Rangers’ young goalie, Henrik Lundqvist, isn’t quite as inexperienced as Lehtonen, having played in New York’s first-round playoff loss last season.
“The playoffs are huge,” Jagr said. “I don’t know how many years are left in my hockey career, and every playoffs is the highlight of a hockey career, the way I look at it. I’m not sure how many playoffs I have left, maybe two, maybe three, that’s the way I’ve got to play.”
Each team used late-season trades to build momentum for the playoffs. The Rangers were 17-6-6 after acquiring forward Sean Avery from Los Angeles on Feb. 5. This will be Avery’s first playoff appearance.
Avery also hasn’t had much experience against the Thrashers.
“I played them once this year, so our coaching staff I’m sure will prepare us,” Avery said. “They’ve got a lot of firepower and a lot of good players. We’ve just got to play well as a team and play Ranger hockey like we did the last six weeks, high tempo and just have fun.”
Atlanta is 12-4-1 since adding forward Keith Tkachuk from St. Louis, defenceman Alexei Zhitnik from Philadelphia and winger Pascal Dupuis from the Rangers.
Tkachuk has made 11 trips to the playoffs; Zhitnik has seven.
Marian Hossa led Atlanta with 43 goals and 100 points. Kovalchuk had 42 goals.
Jagr had 30 goals and 96 points for the Rangers.
The Rangers finished the regular season with 94 points, only three fewer than the Thrashers. It was a dramatic surge for a team that didn’t look like it would make the playoffs midway through the season.
“The last five or six weeks were very stressful mentally and physically, also,” Jagr said. “All I was thinking about was hockey and how not to lose a hockey game because you couldn’t afford to lose any hockey games.”
There also was stress – or at least butterflies – around the Thrashers camp Wednesday. Hartley has a 2001 Stanley Cup ring with Colorado, but even he says he’ll be nervous before the game.
The blue hair may have been one way of coping with the nerves.
“We’ve had three good days of practice; it’s time to drop the puck,” Hartley said.
“I kind of like what I see. They’re loose. They’re on the job. They’re focused. Come tomorrow, I’m sure there will be a couple of players with butterflies, but that’s playoff hockey.”