Rangers need points against Thrashers

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By Brett Huston

Stats Writer

NY Rangers (39-27-8) at Atlanta (30-38-6), 7:00 p.m. EDT

ATLANTA (AP) -- The New York Rangers' schedule the rest of the

way is chock full of Eastern Conference contenders, and if they

hope to see any of those teams again in the playoffs they'll

need to earn some wins.

They could especially use one against the lone lightweight left

on their slate.

Atlanta is the last team the Rangers will face that doesn't have

playoff aspirations, and New York will look to pick up two key

points when it visits the Thrashers on Thursday night before

opening a brutal seven-game closing stretch.

The Rangers (39-27-8) are in seventh place in the East, three

points clear of eighth-place Montreal and five up on ninth-place

Florida.

While New York seems in a good position to qualify for the

postseason, it has a difficult closing stretch, with six of its

final seven games against teams ahead of it in the standings and

the lone other contest against the Canadiens.

The Rangers lost for the first time in five games at Madison

Square Garden on Sunday, falling 2-1 to Ottawa, but bounced back

Tuesday against defensive-minded Minnesota. Nikolai Zherdev

scored for the third time in four games and added an assist to

help New York slip past the stingy Wild 2-1.

"Every single game now is a pressure game with playoff

atmosphere, and it was huge to bounce back from that 2-1 loss to

Ottawa," defenseman Paul Mara told the Rangers' official Web

site. "Hopefully this will get us back on a roll here."

While New York's been tough to beat at home lately, that hasn't

been the case on the road - where it'll almost certainly need to

win a game should it make the playoffs.

The Rangers have won three of five away from MSG, but prior to

that they'd lost nine in a row in visiting arenas.

New York's lack of scoring has played a huge role in its road

struggles. The Rangers score a league-low 2.42 goals per game,

but that futility has really been evident on the road since the

beginning of January, as they've averaged just 1.63 goals.

They have, however, scored four apiece in their three most

recent wins away from home. Three seems to be their magic

number, however - if they score that many or more, they're

12-1-1 on the road. If New York scores two or fewer, it's

4-15-3.

One of those three-goal games came in Atlanta on Dec. 10, when

Scott Gomez's overtime tally gave the Rangers a 3-2 victory. New

York and Atlanta (30-38-6) have split two meetings at MSG, with

the Thrashers winning 2-1 in a shootout there on Feb. 3.

While New York was taking care of Minnesota on Tuesday, Atlanta

couldn't help the Rangers out in Montreal. The Thrashers gave up

three power-play goals in a 6-3 loss to the Canadiens and were

eliminated from playoff contention.

Atlanta has given up nine goals in 22 short-handed chances while

losing three of its last four games.

"Actually, the last 20 games we've been getting better but we're

still working on it," Kovalchuk said of the Thrashers'

short-handed struggles. "We've got a young team and we've got a

long way to improve our game to be a competitive team for the

playoffs. It's very important to be good on the special teams so

hopefully next year we'll be way better than we are this year."

Kovalchuk has just one goal in his last seven games against the

Rangers, who have lost three of their last four in Atlanta.

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