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Associated Press
1/20/2007 4:06:48 PM

NEW YORK (AP) - If the Atlanta Thrashers' second half is anywhere near as good as the first, a long-awaited playoff appearance is sure to follow.

Niclas Havelid scored his second goal of the season 4:09 into the third period to break a tie and lift the Thrashers to a 3-1 victory over the New York Rangers on Saturday.

Atlanta, which already had a healthy lead over the Stanley Cup champion Carolina Hurricanes atop the Southeast Division, beat the Rangers for the fourth time in five trips to Madison Square Garden.

''I have no interest in finding out (why) as long as it keeps going,'' coach Bob Hartley said. ''If you look at our road record, it's all about the commitment our players are putting in. We're not an easy team to play against.''

Havelid, a defenceman who hadn't netted a goal in 10 games, took the puck at the right point - after Steve Rucchin won an offensive zone faceoff - skated down to the right post and flicked a short backhander that pinballed off Henrik Lundqvist and found its way between his pads.

That was enough to give the Thrashers their third win in four games and send them into the all-star break in fine position to claim their first playoff berth in seven NHL seasons.

''I don't think there is a big concern about us getting soft,'' said captain Scott Mellanby, who played in his 1,400th NHL game. ''I think our attitude is good and I don't think it's anything we have to worry about any more than any other team.''

New York will limp into the hiatus, having lost four of five and 11 of 16. The Rangers, who failed to get a single power-play chance in a 1-0 loss at New Jersey on Tuesday, had six opportunities Saturday but couldn't convert. Twice they short-circuited chances by taking quick penalties.

The Rangers have killed 16 consecutive opposition power plays but haven't connected in 16.

''I don't think we put the puck to the net enough,'' forward Brendan Shanahan said. ''We have a power play that really is set up for one shot every 30 seconds. The successful power plays put the puck to the net and get people going there.''

Kari Lehtonen was a big reason why the Rangers were held at bay. The third-year goalie made 29 saves and won for the third time in four starts after dropping four straight.

Ilya Kovalchuk gave the Thrashers a 1-0 lead in the first period before Jaromir Jagr tied it 3:11 later. Marian Hossa, who had a hat trick in Atlanta's loss to Los Angeles on Tuesday, sealed it with an empty-netter with 23.2 seconds left - his NHL-leading 30th goal this season.

Hossa was stopped on a penalty shot in the second period after defenceman Fedor Tyutin threw his stick at the puck.

Henrik Lundqvist was sharp in New York's net, too, stopping 29 shots. But the Rangers equalled last season's total by losing for the 10th time at home (10-10-3).

The ebb and flow of the third period went from cautious to frenetic shortly after the Rangers failed to convert on a 5-on-3 advantage that lasted for just under a minute.

Atlanta's penalty killers took the momentum away from New York after the Rangers called their timeout to prepare for the extended power play.

''We know how dangerous those guys are,'' Hartley said. ''There's some Hall of Famers on that power play.

''In the third period, we got in trouble. For once, we didn't have to pay for it.''

After Havelid scored, the Thrashers' defence kept the Rangers locked in a trap for the final minutes.

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