Matt Cullen banged in a shot off the crossbar early in the third period, snapping a tie and helping New York to a 4-2 victory over the Atlanta Thrashers on Wednesday night that put the Rangers into the second round of the playoffs for the first time in a decade. A year after being swept out of the first round by New Jersey in their return to the playoffs, following a seven-season absence, the Rangers turned the trick on the Thrashers, who exited their first series in four games.
“It never, ever entered my mind,” Rangers coach Tom Renney said. “A sweep? Never.”
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 at 2:06. It withstood a lengthy video review and gave the Rangers their first series win since ousting New Jersey from the second round in 1997.
“You can’t really ask for a better series from the guys,” said forward Brendan Shanahan, who tied it at 2 in the second period. “We are happy the way we played the series, but at the same time we are keeping our head on our shoulders.”
Sixth-seeded New York earned its first home playoff victory since 1997 on Tuesday upon returning to Madison Square Garden after taking the first two games in Atlanta. It was the Rangers’ first sweep since the opening round of the 1994 playoffs – the year they last won the Stanley Cup.
“It wasn’t our goal to just make the first round,” New York captain Jaromir Jagr said. “As long as we stay healthy we have a pretty good chance to go somewhere.”
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, in New York.
Michal Rozsival and Shanahan wiped out one-goal advantages and put Cullen in position for the game-winner. Jagr scored into an empty net 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.
“I saw it hit the crossbar and then I lost sight of it,” Cullen said. “I was actually surprised they were reviewing it. I didn’t expect it to be a goal.”
Cullen stretched and talked to teammate Petr Prucha, while Hedberg strolled during the 5-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.
“I did see the mark on the ice, so it was clearly behind the line,” Hedberg said. “The puck needs to be pretty straight up to be completely over the line. I guess they saw that in Toronto.”
Keith Tkachuk and Greg de Vries scored for the Southeast Division champions. Hedberg stopped 27 shots.
“We weren’t even close to being competitive in the playoffs,” said Atlanta forward Bobby Holik, a two-time champion with New Jersey. “There should be no sense of accomplishment whatsoever.”
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 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.
“We were kind of embarrassed (Tuesday),” 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.”
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.