ATLANTA - "Structure" read the five white-and-blue signs in the visitors' dressing room. But the mood before and during Friday night's game could be described by a different word: "Desperation," Ryan Callahan said.
"It felt like do-or-die almost," echoed Henrik Lundqvist, who made 29 saves in the Rangers' 5-2 victory over the Thrashers, rebounding nicely after being yanked after giving up five goals against the Devils on Wednesday. "We had a really good feeling going in. I think everybody felt 'it's today or we might have to . . . ' I don't even want to think about it."
But on the flight back to New York, the Rangers could relish a win that snapped a four-game losing streak and lifted them to within three points of the eighth-place Bruins for the final playoff berth in the East with 14 games to play.
They could think about how they rode a three-goal first period, including two on the power play . . . and two goals and three points from Vinny Prospal . . . and a goal and two assists for Marian Gaborik in his most productive game since he returned from a groin injury suffered in the Olympics.
"We got the start we wanted," Lundqvist said. "Mentally knowing that we could have been five points behind . . . This one was big for our confidence."
As Sean Avery, benched by coach John Tortorella for not being "engaged" enough, watched from the stands, the Rangers fended off the Thrashers for the first seven minutes of the game and then broke it open.
"It was a huge, huge start for us," said Prospal, whose second goal made the score 3-0 at 13:26 and came three seconds after a five-on-three power play ended. Chris Drury, stationed in front of goaltender Johan Hedberg, set up that one, along with the previous power-play goal by Gaborik. That shot, off a scramble in front, came only 41 seconds after Prospal's opener, a slapper from the left side that went off Hedberg's glove.
"We got that second one right away, and that's a big thing," Callahan said. "Our power play showed up. Dru did a great job and we got some shots. It was as close to a must-win as you can get."
But the Thrashers wouldn't go quietly. With Olli Jokinen in the box, Clarke MacArthur slammed in a pass at 2:33 of the second to cut the lead to 3-1.
Michael Del Zotto restored the three-goal lead at 17:32 when Gaborik was patient on a rush and saw the rookie defenseman creeping down the left side. Del Zotto's shot hit Zack Bogosian's skate and trickled under Hedberg.
In the third, Ron Hainsey beat Lundqvist at 11:26. "We had a chance to get it out, we didn't, the puck's in the back of the net," Tortorella said. "And the complexion changes."
But the penalty-killers burned off two in the third, and Callahan's empty-netter sealed it.
The Rangers, 30-29-9 for 69 points, begin a three-game homestand Sunday against the sixth-place Flyers. "We still have a number of concentration situations and ebbs and flows that still isn't where it should be at this time of year," Tortorella said. "We have a game against Philly coming up and we're going to have to be better."