ATLANTA - It was just about all Chad Johnson could ask for in his first NHL start: Critical saves, clutch defensive plays in front of him and even an assist.
Everything but a win.
The 23-year-old rookie made 31 saves and stopped three of five shootout attempts, but the Rangers blew a one-goal lead in the third period and lost, 2-1, to the Thrashers last night at Philips Arena.
"One of the best performances I've seen by a goalie playing in his first game I've seen in five years of playing in the NHL," teammate Chris Higgins said. "Unbelievable saves in the first period, then he pushed us into a couple extra rounds in the shootout, too. Just fantastic."
Technically, it wasn't the first game for Johnson, who relieved Henrik Lundqvist on Dec. 30 and stopped 17 of 20 shots in two periods, but his poised play reminded many of a veteran.
"I'm very pleased," coach John Tortorella said. "I thought he handled himself well. He will play another game this month. He's just a calming influence. Side to side, he's very good."
Johnson blanked the Thrashers until Jim Slater sped past the defense and scored on a backhander to tie the score at 1 at 6:06 of the third period. Enver Lisin, with his first goal in 11 games, had given the Rangers a 1-0 lead at 2:49 of the second period. Johnson picked up an assist on the goal.
"With the travel last night and the back-to-back, I thought it was hard-fought point," Tortorella said. "You hate giving up the lead in the third period, but I still felt we had opportunities to win the game."
Johnson, who was acquired from the Penguins for a fifth-round pick in last summer's draft, had backed up Lundqvist and practiced with the team for a month.
A star at the University of Alaska who was summoned from Hartford after Steve Valiquette was waived, Johnson made two beauties in the first period to keep the game scoreless. He robbed Rich Peverley by reaching back and stopping the puck at the goal line, a few inches off the ice, with his paddle with 7:52 left. About four minutes later, the rookie slid right to stop a back-door bid by Peverley on a pass from Zach Bogosian. He also was rescued in the second by Marc Staal and Ryan Callahan, who swept pucks out of the crease with their gloves.
"It's disappointing," Johnson said. "I thought I played OK and we were right there. We just couldn't get it done. One of the goals was five-hole and I anticipated him going high; on the other, I was a little late going down and only got a piece. But I felt comfortable and I look forward to the next opportunity to help the team get two points."
But as has often been the issue when Lundqvist plays, the Rangers (21-17-6) did not provide enough offensive support.
"I've been there," said Lundvist, who will be back in the net Saturday against the Bruins.
Although the defensive effort was strong around Johnson, the boost the Rangers needed wasn't there. Johan Hedberg's 29 saves and four more in the shootout gave the slumping Thrashers their first win in 10 games.
"That shootout," Tortorella said. "It's great when you win it, it -- when you lose it."