The Rangers' playoff chances were squarely in their hands heading into the final days of the regular season. The Atlanta Thrashers, with nothing else to play for, took it away without much of a fight.
Rob Schremp and Andrew Ladd scored 15 seconds apart in the second period, Ondrej Pavelec made 29 saves, and the Thrashers delivered a crushing blow to the Rangers' postseason hopes with a 3-0 victory Thursday night.
For the second straight season, New York will play its final game with the playoffs hanging in the balance. Last year, a shootout loss at Philadelphia kept the Rangers out.
"We felt this coming for the past three weeks," Rangers coach John Tortorella said. "The game itself surprises me, but it doesn't surprise me it's going to take us 82. We'll be ready to play Game 82."
Just three nights after the Rangers posted their most stirring win of the season with a late comeback against the Boston Bruins, New York looked flat without second-leading scorer and overall leader Ryan Callahan. That proved costly against the also-ran Thrashers, who had lost four of six but played the spoiler role perfectly and beat New York for the third time in the four-game season series.
"Let's face it, we laid an egg and we need to move by it as quickly as possible," Tortorella said.
Now with only one game left — a home matchup against division rival New Jersey on Saturday — the Rangers are in trouble. New York leads ninth-place Carolina by two points, but the Hurricanes have two games remaining — in Atlanta on Friday night and at home against Tampa Bay on Saturday night — and own the tiebreaker over the Rangers.
New York, which had won 10 of 14 (10-3-1), trails seventh-place Buffalo by one point. The Sabres have two games left.
"All we've lost is the control. You have to hope for help," said Tortorella, who called his club flat. "Obviously, we have to watch the scoreboard before we play our next game."
Pavelec was solid throughout in posting his fourth shutout of the season and sixth in four NHL seasons. He turned aside desperate Rangers chances in the third as New York tried to get back in the game. Eric Boulton stretched Atlanta's lead to 3-0 at 4:19 of the third period.
"It doesn't matter who you are playing against," Pavelec said. "Of course it was a big game for them, but it doesn't mean anything for us. We always want to win.
"I'm happy for the win, but two more games and the season is over. You know you can beat those guys, but they still battle for a spot and we are out already. So it's real disappointing."
Tortorella said after Monday's win he was nervous about this meeting with the Thrashers, and those fears proved to be real. The loss of Callahan, who sustained a broken leg in the final minutes Monday after setting up the tying goal, was felt deeply.
Just as they have done all season, the Thrashers gave the Rangers fits. New York had only itself to blame by coming out in sluggish fashion in the second period.
The Rangers still need a combination of three points gained by them or lost by Carolina to get in.
"It's a tough pill to swallow," forward Brian Boyle said. "It's unfortunate, it's devastating, but we have another chance, which is good. We're confident we can do well on Saturday and hope for the best."
Atlanta forced turnovers, controlled play, and finally got the best of goalie Henrik Lundqvist. Once Schremp broke the seal at 7:42, Ladd followed at 7:57 to put the Rangers in a 2-0 hole.
New York had multiple chances to clear the puck from its zone, but couldn't. Thrashers defenseman Andrey Zubarev, in his second NHL game, found Schremp with a pass that led to a rising shot that beat Lundqvist.
On the ensuing shift, Ladd got behind Rangers defenseman Dan Girardi — who had a rough game — shifted the puck to his backhand and netted his 28th goal.
The Rangers put pressure on Pavelec at times, and even had a chance to put in a loose puck through traffic in the crease, but couldn't find it in time.
"He wasn't hot. We didn't play well," Tortorella said.
New York received a power play when Zubarev was sent off for holding 45 seconds after Ladd's goal, but that advantage lasted only 21 seconds before Vinny Prospal was called for boarding.
That was especially damaging because the Thrashers entered the game with the third least-effective penalty-killing unit in the NHL. It was stout against the Rangers, however, turning aside four short-handed situations and nine of 10 in the season series.
NOTES: Schremp had an assist on Boulton's goal. ... Ladd played in his 400th NHL game. ... Rangers LW Brandon Prust was given the Steven McDonald Extra Effort Award before the game. Callahan, the winner the previous two seasons, walked out with crutches to be part of the ceremony. ... The Rangers were 11-7-2 when Callahan was out with other injuries earlier this season. ... Rangers top-line forward Marian Gaborik didn't play after being beaten up ice on Boulton's goal.