Cullen fired a rolling puck from just inside the blue line that smacked the iron and dropped on its side just over the goal line 2:06 into the third period Wednesday night. It withstood a lengthy video review and snapped a tie, and the Rangers completed a four-game sweep of the Atlanta Thrashers with a 4-2 victory.
New York, which earned its first home playoff victory since 1997 a night earlier, won a post-season series for the first time since that year. It was the Rangers’ first sweep since the opening round of the 1994 playoffs – the year the Rangers last won the Stanley Cup – and quickly ended the Thrashers’ initial venture into the post-season.
Fresh off a 7-0 victory in Game 3 on Tuesday, the Rangers had a much tougher time with goalie Johan Hedberg than Kari Lehtonen. Hedberg stopped 37 shots in a 2-1 loss in Game 2, but Thrashers coach Bob Hartley made the curious decision to go back to Lehtonen, the 4-3 loser in the opener, at Madison Square Garden.
Michal Rozsival and Brendan Shanahan wiped out one-goal advantages and put Cullen in position for the game-winner. Jaromir Jagr sealed the victory with an empty-net goal with 1:33 remaining.
Cullen stepped into his series-winning shot, meeting the puck as it rolled on edge. It smacked the bar and landed as it was when Cullen let it go. Play continued for another 16 seconds until Hedberg stopped another scoring chance.
Cullen stretched and talked to teammate Petr Prucha, while Hedberg strolled during the five-minute video review. Finally, referee Mike Hasenfratz hung up the phone with the NHL office in Toronto and pointed to centre ice. Cullen was mobbed by teammates at the bench as Hedberg shook his head in the crease.
“They can take all night as long as they get it right,” Rangers coach Tom Renney said.
Keith Tkachuk and Greg de Vries scored for the Southeast Division champions, who will have to wait at least a year for their first playoff win. Hedberg stopped 27 shots.
Henrik Lundqvist made 24 saves for the Rangers, who held a 17-6 scoring edge and 143-99 shots advantage in the series. New York will have about a week off before facing either Buffalo, Ottawa, Pittsburgh or Tampa Bay in the next round. The Rangers are the first team this year to advance.
De Vries gave the Thrashers their second short-lived lead of the series with 7:34 left in the middle period, when he ripped a pass from Pascal Dupuis past Lundqvist during a delayed penalty. Marian Hossa, who scored a career-high 100 points this season, assisted for his only point of the series.
New York tied it 5:52 later on Shanahan’s 56th NHL playoff goal, fifth among active players and his third of the series. It was a shot Hedberg, who was sharp throughout the second period, would want back.
Sean Avery made a stellar clear from the Rangers’ zone by wrapping the puck around the boards out to Shanahan, who streaked down the left side. The 38-year-old Shanahan wound up and fired a shot that caught Hedberg under his left elbow and squeezed in with 1:42 remaining in the period.
The Rangers came out fast again but Hedberg provided a steadier presence in goal than Lehtonen’s in Game 3.
Tkachuk finally solved Lundqvist after Ilya Kovalchuk found him with space in the slot. It gave Atlanta its first lead of the series.
Jim Slater went off for interference 1:07 after the goal, and Rozsival cashed in the power play 12 seconds into the advantage with his second of the series. The defenceman took a pass from Martin Straka just inside the right circle and let go a hard shot off the stick of Hossa, who was guarding him, that sailed past Hedberg at 7:57.
That gave the Rangers four power-play goals in seven chances over two games.
Notes: The Thrashers outshot the Rangers 10-8 in the opening 20 minutes, the only time Atlanta had a period advantage in the series. … Jagr is 16th on the NHL career goal-scoring list with his 69, one more than Gordie Howe.