Johnson's 31 saves help Rangers earn a key point
|Rangers forward Enver Lisin redirects a Marc Staal pass up over Thrashers goalie Johan Hedberg and into the net on Thursday night in Atlanta.
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By Jim Cerny, newyorkrangers.com
turned in a remarkable 31-save performance in his first National Hockey League start, but the rookie goaltender and his Rangers teammates were forced to settle for one point instead of two as they dropped a 2-1 decision to the Atlanta Thrashers in a game decided by the shootout on Thursday night at Phillips Arena.
By extending the game to overtime, the Rangers earned a point that lifted them into a tie with Ottawa for sixth place in the Eastern Conference. The Rangers have now earned at least one point in 10 of their last 11 games (7-1-3).
“With the travel last night, and the back-to-back, I thought this was a hard-fought point,” said head coach John Tortorella, whose Rangers had skated to a 5-2 win over the Dallas Stars in New York on Wednesday night.
Johnson surrendered a goal to Slava Kozlov in the second round of the shootout, but Marian Gaborik
pulled the Rangers even in the third round, beating Johan Hedberg, who also played exceptionally with 29 saves.
After Johnson stopped Rich Peverley in the fourth round, Hedberg did likewise to Ales Kotalik. But Bryan Little slipped a shot through Johnson’s pads in Round 5, and Michael Del Zotto
sealed the Rangers’ fate by firing his fifth-round shot wide of the net.
Johnson stopped the first 25 shots he faced in the game before Atlanta’s Jim Slater scored on a partial break-in 6:06 into the third period. Defenseman Pavel Kubina whipped a perfect pass onto the stick of the streaking Slater, and Slated slipped a shot between Johnson’s pads to tie the game 1-1.
“I am very pleased with how he played tonight,” Tortorella said of Johnson. “I thought he handled himself well, was calm. He has a calming influence back there. For his first start, I’m very pleased how he handled himself tonight.”
Enver Lisin had given the Rangers a 1-0 lead at 2:49 of the second period. Charging hard to the net, Lisin deflected Marc Staal
’s pass that went between Kubina’s skates past Hedberg for his fifth goal of the season, and first in the past 11 games.
Staal had carried the puck up ice after collecting it behind his own net. Johnson was credited with his first NHL assist as he had stopped the puck and left it for Staal behind the cage.
Johnson looked calm, poised, and well-positioned most of the night. As a result he regularly made his saves look routine. But when he needed to make the spectacular save, Johnson was up to the task, as well.
In the first period Johnson made a pair of lightning-quick reactions to fashion highlight-reel saves and keep the Thrashers off of the scoreboard. At 12:08 he lunged across the crease from left to right to make a sensational save with his stick along the goal line to rob Peverley after a terrific fake shot and subsequent pass into the slot by Zach Bogosian. Then at 16:20 he burst across the crease from left to right again, this time to stone Little from the doorstep after Peverley’s neat cross-ice feed.
“I thought after the first five minutes I settled down and it was just another game,” said Johnson.
Midway through the second, with the Rangers leading 1-0, Johnson made two superb saves while his team was on the power play. The first came against Slater, who broke in on a 2-on-1 shorthanded rush, but was denied by Johnson’s right pad. Then moments later it was Evander Kane who was stopped by Johnson on an in-close shorthanded chance.
“He played well enough to get us a win, you know, kind of steal us a win with some of the saves he made,” alternate captain Ryan Callahan
said of Johnson. “We’ve got to get more than one goal for him. I think as a group we feel he deserves better than that.”
Johnson did receive some clutch help from his teammates throughout the game. Chris Drury
, Donald Brashear
, and Matt Gilroy
were among those who blocked shots at key moments with the Thrashers pressing against the Rangers’ rookie netminder. And Callahan swatted a puck off the goal line following Johnson’s save on Slater’s shorthanded chance in the second period.
At 13:13 of the middle period, Staal came through for Johnson. After Johnson made a save on Little’s point-blank chance, the puck rolled up the goalie’s arm and along the crossbar before Staal cleared it out of harm’s way.
“The guys, I think, played awesome in front of me,” said Johnson. “The players were backchecking hard. I just can’t give enough credit to them. They helped me out a lot, played so solid back there for me in my first start. I owe a lot to them”
Johnson also received a dose of good luck when, late in the first period, Kozlov’s power play blast from right wing caromed off the post with the game still scoreless.
At the other end of the ice, Hedberg was up to his usual tricks when playing against the Rangers. Already with a pair of wins against New York this season, Hedberg was again excellent on Thursday night.
Kotalik, Artem Anisimov
, Brian Boyle
, and Brashear were among the Rangers who had quality scoring chances turned aside by Hedberg. Anisimov -- who was a force all night long -- also rang a shot off the crossbar 11 minutes into the second period.
On the opening shift of the third period, Hedberg kept his team in the game when he robbed Brandon Dubinsky
to keep the score 1-0 in favor of the visitors. Then after the Thrashers pulled even, Hedberg made a sensational blocker save with 4:15 to play on Gaborik’s one-timer off of Erik Christensen
’s centering pass.
“I thought we battled hard, I really do,” said Callahan. “I thought we could have been better at some areas of the game, but I thought our compete was there. We just didn’t get the result we wanted.”
Another stiff test awaits the Rangers on Saturday afternoon in their next game when they take part in a matinee against the Bruins up in Boston.
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