NEW YORK – Sean Avery’s roller-coaster season is now about a goal streak instead of a career-threatening blue streak.
Avery has been on his best behaviour since the New York Rangers rescued him two weeks ago from the Dallas Stars, who had no use for the noted pest after the NHL suspended him for crude public comments directed toward fellow players dating his former girlfriends.
Back on Broadway for a second stint with the Rangers, Avery has found his game while trying to fit in. The much-anticipated clash with fiery new coach John Tortorella hasn’t materialized, and Avery’s newfound attitude and three-game goal streak are big reasons why.
“Sean is showing what he can do as a player,” Tortorella said of Avery, who has four goals in the three games. “If he just keeps that concentration and continues to just worry about playing and not the other stuff, he can do the things he has been doing for the hockey club.
“He has been outstanding in trying to keep that concentration, but it has to be all of the time. We don’t want any cracks.”
Avery had three goals, seven assists and 77 penalty minutes in 23 games for Dallas this season, before his infamous Dec. 2 remarks the morning of a game against the Calgary Flames led to his banishment. After two months in off-ice limbo and a brief stretch with the Rangers’ Hartford AHL affiliate, Avery has five points and eight penalty minutes in six games since returning to New York for a second chance.
“He holds everyone accountable, including myself,” Avery said of Tortorella, 5-3-1 since replacing fired coach Tom Renney. “I feel like he is on me a lot and trying to get the most out of me and get the most out of all the guys. We are starting to respond to him a lot more.”
Not only did Avery score two power-play goals in the Rangers’ 4-1 home win over Philadelphia on Sunday, he also honed his skills as hockey’s most-hated man by getting the Flyers off their game while staying out of the penalty box.
Avery coaxed Jeff Carter into a hooking penalty in the first period, and Andrew Alberts got caught for charging him in the third.
“Avery started picking on guys like Carter, and we got riled up instead of just playing hard between the whistles,” Flyers coach John Stevens said after his team gave up nine power plays. “I understand what the guys are doing, but at the same time, I think we got a little wrapped up in the emotion of the game and spent way too much time on the penalty kill in order to win on the road.”
That is the upside to Avery, a player wanted only by the Rangers. The big question for Tortorella, a big critic of Avery’s while working as a TV analyst a few months earlier, was if the feisty forward could buy into the team concept and not stray to make things all about him.
The other unknown was whether a tamer Avery would lose the on-ice edge that makes him effective. His speed, hockey sense, and surprisingly good scoring touch on display since he got to the Rangers suggest his game is the same.
“Ever since he got here we’ve only had good things,” Rangers goalie Henrik Lundqvist said. “When he focuses on the game, he’s a really good hockey player. He’s doing a lot of good things out there for us.
“It’s not easy to come in after a couple of months off, but so far he’s been doing a really good job. He just has to keep his intensity high and keep his focus.”
Avery is still jabbering with opponents on the ice and from the bench, and is the object of attention after most whistles. The Rangers are 4-2 since his arrival, and were 50-23-13 with him in the lineup over the previous 1 1/2 seasons before he left for Dallas last summer.
“His probation period is over and now he’s back to his old antics and we got sucked in,” Stevens said. “We started worrying about him instead of playing the game. He draws your physical attention and allows their skilled people to play, and then we play the whole game short-handed.
“He obviously had a game plan. Give him credit. That’s what he does best.”
The Rangers are in a tenuous tie with Montreal for sixth place in the Eastern Conference, but sit only two points above the postseason cutoff with 12 games left.
“We’re starting to believe that we’re a good team,” Avery said. “I think that we kind of had a feeling that we didn’t really believe that or we don’t believe that as much as we should. We’ve got a good team.
“We’ve just got to believe that. I think that’s the most important part.”