The Thrashers will open the NHL Eastern Conference playoffs Thursday night against the New York Rangers, the seven-year-old franchise’s first post-season game and the first playoff game in Atlanta since 1980 – the Flames’ final season in the city.
As the Southeast Division champions and the No. 3 seed in the conference, the Thrashers have the home-ice advantage in the best-of-seven series.
“I think we’re going to generate lots of energy in this great city with the playoffs,” Thrashers coach Bob Hartley said. “There are lots of faithful hockey fans who have waited a long time for this, and now we’re going to be able to thank them by giving them the NHL playoffs.
“That will create an extra buzz for this city and hopefully create new hockey fans.”
The Flames never won a playoff series in Atlanta.
The Thrashers are playoff newcomers, but general manager Don Waddell made some key moves before the trade deadline to add post-season experience.
Atlanta is 12-4-1 since Waddell acquired forward Keith Tkachuk from St. Louis, defenceman Alexei Zhitnik from Philadelphia and winger Pascal Dupuis from the Rangers.
The Thrashers already had strong veteran leadership from such players as Marian Hossa, who reached 100 points for the first time in his career, Slava Kozlov, Bobby Holik and captain Scott Mellanby. Ilya Kovalchuk, who had 42 goals and 76 points, is the team’s rising star.
Another key for the Thrashers was the stability in the net provided by another young star, Kari Lehtonen. Lehtonen was 34-24-9 while allowing 2.79 goals a game.
“The Rangers have a great power play and it’s going to be key for us not to take too many penalties,” Lehtonen said. “We have played well against the Rangers this year, and I hope we can continue that.”
Veteran goalie Johan Hedberg was 9-4-2 with a 2.89 GAA.
The Thrashers set franchise records with 43 wins and 97 points. The team won three of four regular-season games against the Rangers, the No. 6 seed.
Atlanta finished four points ahead of Tampa Bay in the division, a year after finishing two points behind the Lightning and missing the playoffs.