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 turned aside 31 shots and stopped three of five shootout attempts, but was beaten by Slava Kozlov and Bryan Little as Marian Gaborik was the lone Ranger to beat Thrashers goaltender Johan Hedberg and the Rangers fell 2-1 at Philips Arena.
“One of the best performances I’ve seen by a goalie playing in his first game in five years of playing in the NHL,” said Chris Higgins. “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,” said coach John Tortorella. “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 Blueshirts 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 provided the thin cushion at 2:49 of the second period.
“With the travel last night and the back-to-back, I thought it was a hard-fought point,” said Tortorella. “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-Fairbanks 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 Nick 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 across to stop a back-door bid by Peverley on a pass from Zach Bogosian. He was also rescued in the second by Marc Staal and Ryan Callahan, who swept loose pucks out of the crease with their gloves.
“It’s disappointing,” he 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.”
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.
While the defensive effort was strong around Johnson, the boost the Rangers needed wasn’t there, as Hedberg’s 29 saves and four more in the shootout gave the slumping Thrashers their first win in 10 games.
“That shootout,” said Tortorella, “it’s great when you win it, it ---- when you lose it.”