Hockey

Rangers sweep Thrashers to advance

The Rangers on Wednesday advanced to the Eastern Conference semifinals, winning 4-2 in New York to sweep the Atlanta Thrashers.

The New York Rangers on Wednesday advanced to the Eastern Conference semifinals, winning 4-2 at home to sweep theAtlanta Thrashers.

Matt Cullen's blast off the crossbar early in the third held up as the winner, and Jaromir Jagr added an empty-netter at Madison Square Garden.

Michal Rozsival and Brendan Shanahan also scored for the Rangers. Henrik Lundqvist made 27 saves in net.

New York became the first team to advance in the 2007 playoffs, one year it was the first team to be eliminated.

"I'm not sure how far we've come yet, obviously, but it's an important step," said Rangers coach Tom Renney.

New York's opponent in the next round won't be known for several days, but the Buffalo Sabres or the Ottawa Senators-Pittsburgh Penguins winner loom as potential foes.

Atlanta competed hard one night after a 7-0 embarrassment, but bowed out of the franchise's first playoff appearance in eight years without recording a win in the best-of-seven NHL series.

Keith Tkachuk and Greg De Vries each staked the Thrashers to leads Wednesday that the team couldn't hold.

Johan Hedberg, who played in Game 2, returned to the net and finished with 24 stops.

The Thrashers went just 1-for-15 on the power play during the best-of-seven series.

"We weren't even close to being competitive in the playoffs," said forward Bobby Holik. "There should be no sense of accomplishment whatsoever."

Thrashers take 1st lead

Atlanta opened the scoring Wednesday, taking a lead for the first time in the series. Ilya Kovalchuk sped down the wing and fed Tkachuk in the slot for a goal at 6:38 of the first.

But just 79 secondslater, on a Rangers power play, Rozsival's shot from near the left faceoff circle beat a screened Hedberg.

The Thrashers' netminder made a right pad save on Jagr late in the period and for the first time in the series, Atlantawasn'tbehind headinginto the first intermission.

Atlanta regained the lead on a delayed penalty midway through the second. Pascal Dupuisthrew the puck back to the point to De Vries, who slapped it into a half-empty net.

Shanahan brought the crowd back to its feet with under two minutes left in the period, taking advantage of a Thrashers turnover andfiring a shot on a 2-on-1 that trickledbetween Hedberg's pads.

"You can't really ask for a better series from the guys," Shanahan said after the game. "We are happy the way we played the series, but at the same time we are keeping our head on our shoulders."

Cullen's blast off the crossbarwent straightdown near the goal-lineearly in the third, causingthe crowd to erupt again.Play continued whilea video of the play was reviewed, resulting in the goal being confirmed.

"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."

Lundqvist and Hedberg both made tremendous saves to keep the score 3-2, with each team also hitting the post.

Jagr scored into an empty net with 1:33 left to all but assure victory. It was his 69th career playoff goal.

"It wasn't our goal to just make the first round," said Jagr. "As long as we stay healthy, we have a pretty good chance to go somewhere."

Leads an Atlanta rarity

Atlanta held the lead for just over seven minutes the entire series. Last year, many of the Rangersexperienced asimilar scenario, holding a lead for just over four minutes in total in a four-game sweep at the hands of New Jersey.

The result could be the end of the road for 40-year-old Scott Mellanby, who was getting one more chance to vie for the Stanley Cup after reaching the final in his rookie yearwith Philadelphia (1987) and again with Florida (1996).

"We'll see," said Mellanby after the game. "I think that's about it. I've thought about it and I know what I'm going to do. I'll wait a couple of days."

Despite leading the Thrashers to their first playoff berth, coach Bob Hartley's job is not necessarily safe. Hartleyfigures to endure criticism in Atlanta, both for the emphatic loss and his handling of the team's goaltenders.

Hartleystarted Kari Lehtonen — who looked shaky in the opener — in net for the third game, despite a strong outing from Hedberg in Game 2.

With files from the Associated Press