ATLANTA - Benoit Allaire offered these words of advice to rookie goalie Chad Johnson before last night's start.
"It's not your first game, it's your second," the Rangers goaltending coach said. "So don't think of it that way."
Allaire said the 23-year-old Johnson, who had relieved Henrik Lundqvist in his NHL debut Dec. 30 and stopped 17 of 20 shots in two periods, thought about it for a minute, and calmly nodded.
"So I thought," Allaire said, "he's going to be all right."
Johnson was more than all right. He 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, then he held off the Thrashers through overtime.
But Slava Kozlov and Bryan Little scored in the shootout for a 2-1 final that spoiled Johnson's 31-save effort in a duel with Thrashers goalie Johan Hedberg, and ended the Rangers' chance for three consecutive wins. Marian Gaborik was the lone Rangers scorer in the five rounds of the shootout.
"It's disappointing. We had the opportunity to win in the shootout and I just didn't come up with enough saves," Johnson said.
Chris Higgins said: "I thought it was one of the best games I've seen by a rookie goalie in five years."
Enver Lisin gave the Rangers (21-17-6) a 1-0 lead by deflecting the puck past Hedberg off a thread-the-needle pass from the right point by Marc Staal at 2:49 of the second. It was Lisin's first goal in 11 games.
As a bonus, Johnson was awarded the secondary assist, the first point of his NHL career. The Rangers couldn't muster another one before the shootout.
Johnson, who backed up Lundqvist and practiced with the team for a month, went to Hartford to shake off the rust and won two games last weekend, allowing only three goals.
"This is the game we wanted him to play," coach John Tortorella said before the game. "It's a back-to-back situation. He's going to play some games for us, so whenever we get a chance to get him some games [in Hartford] we will."
But as has often been the issue when Lundqvist plays, the Rangers did not provide enough offensive support.
A star at the University of Alaska who was acquired from Pittsburgh for a fifth-round pick at last summer's draft, 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 backdoor bid by Peverley on a pass from Zach Bogosian.
"The thing with Johnny is he's a very calm guy in the net," Tortorella said. "The puck hits him. We saw that in Traverse City when he played there [in the annual preseason prospects tournament]. He fills the net and there's not a lot of wasted motion."
The Thrashers came very close to tying the game later in the second. As Dan Girardi, who had lost his stick, tried to kick the puck out of the Rangers' zone, Chris Thorburn tripped him at 8:52, giving the Rangers another power play. But Johnson had to kick out his right pad to thwart Slater on a shorthanded breakaway. Peverley's rebound hit the far post and Ryan Callahan swept the puck, near the line, out of the crease with his hand. A review supported the on-ice call: no goal.
Colby Armstrong also just missed. His close-in shot bounced off Johnson's chest, past his left side and Staal gloved the puck out of the air to the boards.