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Playoff observations

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Well, nobody can take those eight minutes away from the Atlanta Thrashers.

That’s roughly the amount of time the Thrashers led the New York Rangers, not just in Thursday’s 4-2 loss but in their entire quarterfinal exit against the Blueshirts. Last year general manager Don Waddell promised the playoffs and the team fell short. Maybe next year he can guarantee a postseason win and see what happens.

Perhaps as surprising as Atlanta’s meek exit was just how little fanfare surrounded this Rangers sweep. With all the attention garnered by Sidney Crosby and the Pittsburgh Penguins and everybody’s playoff darlings the Buffalo Sabres, the Rangers have managed to fly under the radar in the Eastern Conference.

Those days are over, of course. By the time the Rangers take the ice in the second round for a likely matchup against the Sabres or Senators, there will be no disguising them as anything other than one of the hottest teams in the Eastern Conference.

A few observations from the series clincher:

Best line: It’s telling that New York’s three stars Wednesday cut across multiple lines. This is no longer a top-heavy, store-bought Rangers lineup. Third-liner Matt Cullen scored the game-winner in Game 4, meaning that all three lines accounted for a deciding goal in the series. Still, it was the Marcel Hossa-Michael Nylander-Jaromir Jagr line that was the class of this sweep. Jagr looks healthy and motivated, Nylander dominated the puck at times and Hossa outplayed brother Marian, no small feat. The trio combined for 17 points in four wins.

Worst line: Ilya Kovalchuk didn’t do much, but he did team with Keith Tkachuk Wednesday to get Atlanta on the board. That leaves 100-point scorer Marian Hossa and his mates as the only complete no-shows for the Thrashers. Hossa finished the series with one assist, 10 shots and a minus-6 rating. Linemates Eric Belanger and Slava Kozlov combined for one point. Atlanta just doesn’t have the scoring depth to survive such a letdown.

Best call: You won’t see many pucks ring off a post, enter the goal and then return to play without impacting the back of the net, but that’s exactly what happened Wednesday on Cullen’s series-winning goal. He hit a rolling puck over Johan Hedberg’s shoulder and at first it appeared the Thrashers had caught a break. Officials reviewed the play at the next stoppage, and after a lengthy review correctly ruled that the puck had made a freak change of direction after crossing over the goal line.

Worst call: Thrashers coach Bob Hartley’s handling of his goaltending tandem. Kari Lehtonen wasn’t the reason Atlanta lost Game 1, but Hartley made a change anyway. Hedberg was the only reason the Thrashers had a shot in Game 2, but Hartley flip-flopped goalies for Game 3 anyway. Tuesday’s debacle ended Lehtonen’s series, so now what for the Thrashers between the pipes? Goalie instability kept this team out of the playoffs in 2005-06. Lehtonen was supposed to be the stabilizer. How will Hartley’s vote of playoff no-confidence play with the youngster?

Best extreme makeover: In Los Angeles, Sean Avery was at best a divisive figure in the dressing room and at worst the most hated player in the National Hockey League. He made no secret of his desire to remake his image in New York and has done just that. Avery took 19 shots in the series, accounted for five points and agitated without taking dumb penalties (19 of his 21 penalty minutes came in the third period of the Game 3 blowout).

Worst extreme makeover: Sure, Kovalchuk’s fighting major in Game 3 came after the game was out of hand, but the mere fact that he was goaded into dropping the gloves with Avery was another indication that this series was played on the Rangers’ terms.

Biggest surprise: Marcel Hossa thoroughly outplaying brother Marian.

THIRD STAR OF THE DAY

Sharks goalie Evgeni Nabokov turned away all 22 shots he faced in the first 40 minutes Wednesday. Nashville had perhaps its best period of the series in the opening frame, but Nabokov was spectacular at times in making 14 saves. His play in the early going could be one reason why the Predators looked so deflated in a third period that saw them register only three shots.

SECOND STAR OF THE DAY

It was another two-goal game for Zach Parise, who now has six in four games for the Devils. His first five goals either tied games or gave New Jersey the lead. His sixth Wednesday, scored on the power play, gave the Devils a two-goal margin they would eventually need to reach overtime.

FIRST STAR OF THE DAY

Chalk up another two goals for Chris Drury, who now has four goals and two game-winners for the Sabres in their East quarterfinal against the Islanders. Drury scored the game-winner off his own rebound just 29 seconds into the second period to deflate the home Islanders.

MINOR PENALTY

David Legwand had the puck on his stick at the exact time Sharks forward Bill Guerin was inadvertently wiping out his own goalie. Perfect circumstance for a tying goal late in the first period, but Legwand whiffed on the shot and San Jose got away with leaving its goal momentarily undefended. The Predators had precious few scoring chances from there on.

MAJOR PENALTY

Strike two on Islanders fans, who once again littered the ice with debris after a call went against the home team late in the third period. New York thought it had scored a tying goal with 1:42 remaining, but referee Mike Leggo ruled that he had whistled the play dead before some combination of Ryan Miller and the puck was pushed into the net. Looked like the correct call, not that a botched one justifies the reaction.

WHAT TO WATCH FOR THURSDAY

Game 5: Pittsburgh Penguins at Ottawa Senators – The NHL’s fresh young face will be relegated to studio work the rest of the way if Sidney Crosby and the Penguins can’t solve the Ottawa Senators Thursday. Scoring depth has been the story of this series. Pittsburgh’s support guys have come up empty while Ottawa has goals from 10 players and a combined 15 points from blueliners. Somebody not named Crosby, Staal or Malkin has to step up for the Pens.

Game 4: Detroit Red Wings at Calgary Flames – This series had all the makings of a dud until Calgary’s Game 3 win. We should have seen this coming, of course, as the Flames were an absolutely atrocious road team in the regular season. No reason to expect anything other than another gritty effort from Calgary in Game 4, but they do realize they need a road win in this series to advance, right?

Game 5: Dallas Stars at Vancouver Canucks – Dallas may well exit the playoffs in the first round again this year – they need a road win Thursday just to stay alive in this series – but unlike years past there will be no finger pointing directed at Stars goalie Marty Turco. Both netminders have been fantastic in this series, as advertised. With eight goals in four games and two overtime losses, the goal for Dallas is simple: Find someone to step up and score a key goal.

Game 5: Minnesota Wild at Anaheim Ducks – Minnesota climbed back in this series with a road win Tuesday, which opened the door for a goalie change in Anaheim. Jean-Sebastien Giguere replaced Ilya Bryzgalov in Game 4 and coach Randy Carlyle was undecided on his Thursday starter after the game. Giguere has been dealing with off-ice issues surrounding the health of his newborn son.