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Lehtonen benched as Thrashers try to dig out of series hole

ATLANTA - The Carolina Hurricanes dropped the first two games at home in their opening NHL playoff series against Montreal last year and stormed back to win the Stanley Cup.

The Thrashers, though, don't want to be forced to have to get out of a similar hole this season. It's not a good way to begin your first postseason.

That's why coach Bob Hartley will go with veteran Johan Hedberg rather than Kari Lehtonen in goal today at

3 p.m. in Philips Arena as Atlanta tries to avoid a 0-2 series deficit against the New York Rangers.

"Especially our young guys, they were thinking about how the playoffs would be, but they still didn't know," Hartley said after Thursday night's 4-3 loss. "Now they know."

Lehtonen, who admitted that he should have secured the shot late in the second period that led to what proved to be the winning goal, certainly had that message reinforced when he was informed by Hartley that Hedberg would start Game 2.

Hedberg made 38 saves in a 2-1 overtime victory over the Rangers on March 16 and has the playoff experience Lehtonen lacks.

As a rookie in 2001, Hedberg helped Pittsburgh to the Eastern Conference finals, posting a 2.30 goals-against average and two shutouts in 18 games.

Signed as a free agent last summer, the 33-year-old Swede was 9-4-2 with 2.89 goals-against average and .898 save percentage for the Thrashers. Lehtonen, 23, was 34-24-9 with a 2.79 GAA and .912 save percentage.

Lehtonen made 34 saves in the opener against the Rangers, but had one glaring miscue that proved costly. He tried to glove a shot by Petr Prucha and dropped the puck right to Michael Nylander for a gift goal.

"The puck was knuckling, but I should have had it," said Lehtonen, who admitted he was disappointed to not get a chance to start Game 2. "I stop it nine times out of 10. This time I didn't."

In addition to sharper goaltending, the Thrashers need tighter defense and for either Marian Hossa or Ilya Kovalchuk to match the offensive production of Rangers star Jaromir Jagr.

Jagr put the Thrashers behind early with a blistering one-timer and had an assistant on the Rangers' second goal. Neither Hossa nor Kovalchuk had a point and they combined for just four shots - one less than Jagr.

"It's going to be very hard to stop him," said Hartley of Jagr, who is certainly not he Rangers' only weapon.

The Thrashers were outshot 38-24, giving up 30 attempts in the first two periods.

"We gave them too much room," Keith Tkachuk said.

Bobby Holik, a winner of two Stanley Cups with New Jersey, has the most playoff experience on the Thrashers and showed it. "He was like a freight train out there," Hartley said of the veteran center.

But some of his teammates seemed to be stuck in reverse through the first two periods. The Rangers hadn't won a playoff game since 1997, but they were definitely the looser team.

"Often times, it's easier to start on the road," said Rangers coach Tom Renney, noting the pressure of the home crowd on the higher-seeded team.

Having fallen behind by two goals three times, the Thrashers almost battled back to tie in the game during a 6-on-4 power play in the closing seconds, Rangers defenseman Marek Malik getting his stick on Slava Kozlov's shot as time expired.

"Kozy had a partially wide-open net," Hartley said. "But that's how it goes. Sometimes you catch the breaks and sometimes you don't."

"The nerves were definitely there," defenseman Andy Sutton said. "A lot of us, it was our first playoff game. But if we can keep playing like we did in the third period, we'll be fine."

Sutton and Lehtonen dyed their hair on the eve of the postseason, a gimmick that didn't sit well with some of their teammates. Sutton re-dyed his hair black, while Lehtonen cut most of his blue-and-white hair off.

The playoffs aren't fun and games.

"We worked hard in the third period. If we can bring that same intensity and that same game on Saturday in Game 2, I like our chances," Hartley said.

"It's a big game. We have to win it," Hedberg said.

Added Hartley, "Obviously, we lost home-ice advantage, but we've played well all year on the road. Now it's up to us to capture the game Saturday and then get back on the road and steal one at Madison Square Garden."