<
>

First-round breakdown: Thrashers vs. Rangers

A season ago, the Rangers limped into the playoffs and were quickly swept by the rival Devils. This year's postseason features a Rangers team that has a dramatically different makeup.

In Brendan Shanahan, the Rangers have a three-time Cup winner, and Henrik Lundqvist has been sensational over the final month of the regular season. Winger Sean Avery (surprise, surprise) has been given much-deserved credit for helping turn around the Rangers' season by adding grit and timely scoring.

The Thrashers, meanwhile, will be counting on a strong veteran presence in their first playoff series. Newcomers Keith Tkachuk, Alexei Zhitnik and Eric Belanger were key to righting the Thrashers' ship and winning their first division title. GM Don Waddell gambled away a big chunk of the team's future to retool at the trade deadline. Now, he's about to find out the payoff.

1. The battle of the blue lines. Neither team has what you would call a stud on the back end, a la Scott Niedermayer or Nicklas Lidstrom. But the Rangers have proven to be a very difficult team to play against in their own zone and have done an admirable job of clearing traffic away from Lundqvist. Getting the talented Fedor Tyutin back from injury in the final days of the regular season is a big help. The Thrashers are another team scouts don't like because of their defense. Zhitnik has been their best defender since coming over. He's played 25 minutes or more 12 times since becoming a Thrasher. And while there's still the odd brain cramp along the blue line, there's also enough size (Garnet Exelby, Andy Sutton and Shane Hnidy) to make life miserable for Jaromir Jagr, Shanahan, et al.

2. Atlanta's special teams. Although the Thrashers are much improved in terms of their discipline, they remain vulnerable in short-handed situations. Atlanta finished 26th in the NHL in that category, which is an improvement over much of a season when they were at, or near, dead last. Taking too many penalties against Jagr and Co. will be a death knell. The Thrashers' power play, too, has been curiously inept given the load of talent, including Marian Hossa, Ilya Kovalchuk, Slava Kozlov and Tkachuk. The Thrashers have the lowest-ranked power-play unit of any playoff team.

3. The King and the Finn. Lundqvist, as mentioned, was superlative in the latter stages of the regular season. Over a 28-game period to end the season, he gave up more than three goals just twice (in consecutive starts, it turns out). But he has a lot to prove after last spring, when he allowed 13 goals in three games and was lifted in favor of backup Kevin Weekes during the Rangers' four-game series loss to New Jersey. Lundqvist, who was battling injury during the '06 postseason, will enter this year's playoffs much improved. In some ways, Atlanta netminder Kari Lehtonen is in the same position Lundqvist was a season ago -- a top-notch, young netminder facing his first playoff action. Lehtonen, twice The Hockey News' prospect of the year, appears to have the right personality for the playoffs as he seems unfazed by bad goals. His record in the AHL playoffs was terrific, but he'll have to provide more consistency than he did at times during this season.

4. The Sean Avery factor. So much has been written and said about the abrasive forward since his arrival in New York, it prompted players to name him the most overrated player in a recent Hockey News poll. Tell that to the Montreal Canadiens and other teams Avery has tormented as the Rangers rebounded to reach the playoffs. Now, the question is whether Avery can continue to be effective without crossing the line in his first playoff appearance. Watch for him to try and needle Kovalchuk, who is susceptible to being thrown off his game.

5. The playoff experience factor. The Thrashers are in the playoffs for the first time, yet Kozlov won two Cups in Detroit, Bobby Holik won two in New Jersey, Jon Sim won a Cup in Dallas and Greg de Vries won it all with coach Bob Hartley in Colorado. Zhitnik, Tkachuk and captain Scott Mellanby all have lengthy playoff records. Yet, for many of those players, their playoff experiences occurred years ago, which brings the value of those successes into question.

Bobby Holik vs. the Rangers. This is why Waddell spent $4.25 million a year on Holik -- to make life miserable for players like Jagr, Shanahan, Martin Straka and Michael Nylander with the stakes at their highest. His play as a shut-down center for the Devils was crucial to their success, and opposing centers like Mats Sundin and Eric Lindros can attest to his relentlessness. Although it's been five years since he's played in a playoff game, we figure it'll be like getting back on a bicycle. You never forget how.

Thrashers: Kovalchuk has scored in four straight games, but his point production is down 22 points from a season ago. Alexei Zhitnik has 14 points in 17 games since joining the Thrashers.

Rangers: Ryan Callahan, 22, has six points since being recalled from Hartford of the AHL and has given the Rangers another hard-working, hard-nosed forward. After scoring 15 times and totaling 47 points a season ago, defenseman Paul Mara has just two goals and five points in 19 games as a Ranger.

The Rangers will be the sexy pick of many this spring, and they are a formidable opponent. But the Thrashers are deeper than people think and Hartley has been down this road before with another veteran lineup in Colorado. Atlanta in seven.

Scott Burnside is the NHL writer for ESPN.com.