Just imagine how the Atlanta Thrashers felt after everyone’s No. 1 nemesis scored with an air-hockey ricochet from centre ice, then rubbed salt in the wound by setting up the winning goal late in the third period.
Brendan Shanahan scored off Avery’s pass with 4:01 remaining Saturday, lifting the New York Rangers to a 2-1 victory over the Thrashers and a commanding two-nothing lead in the best-of-seven playoff series.
The Thrashers keep taking runs at Avery – including a nasty play by Ilya Kovalchuk that put down the Rangers left wing in the final seconds – but he relishes that sort of spotlight.
“The more attention they give me, the less they’re giving to my teammates,” said Avery, one of the NHL’s most outspoken and penalized players. “And I play better, too.”
Shanahan’s 54th career playoff goal came after Kovalchuk tied the game at 1 for the Thrashers with 14:25 to go in the third period. From the blue-line, Fedor Tyutin fired a shot that was blocked in front by Atlanta defenceman Greg de Vries.
But the puck deflected to Avery in the faceoff circle, and he initially looked toward Martin Straka before spotting Shanahan alone in front. The 38-year-old veteran didn’t miss, flipping a shot past a diving Johan Hedberg to give the Rangers their second straight one-goal win in Atlanta.
“I was going to backdoor it to Marty,” Avery said. “But I stopped, turned around and saw Shanny standing in a good spot. He buried it.”
Avery didn’t even see his own goal, which came just over 8 minutes in.
After Henrik Lundqvist made a couple of sprawling saves on Keith Tkachuk and Kovalchuk, New York broke out of its zone. Crossing centre ice, Avery tried to ricochet the puck off the boards and into the Atlanta end, which sent Hedberg behind the net to cut it off.
The puck never got there. Instead, it took an odd bounce – apparently off a metal support between the glass – and headed straight toward the net. A panicked Hedberg scrambled for the crease, but his dive was too late.
“A guy was finishing a check on me, so I wasn’t even looking at the puck,” Avery said. “I looked over and Shanny had his arms up. That’s how I knew it was in.”
The series now moves to Madison Square Garden for Game 3 on Tuesday night. The next two games are in New York, giving the Rangers a chance to clinch the series without coming back to Atlanta.
The Thrashers were clearly frustrated at the end. Kovalchuk took a run at Avery with 3.4 seconds left and drew a penalty. Another tussle nearly broke out at the horn, but the officials broke it up and the Rangers descended on Lundqvist to celebrate.
“Did he get an instigator penalty?” Avery asked. When told that Atlanta’s star was only sent off for interference, the Rangers forward shook his head in disgust.
“Well, it should have been one,” Avery said. “That probably has something to do with the guy who threw the punch.”
New York opened the series with a 4-3 win – the Rangers’ first postseason victory since 1997. They waited only two days to pick up another.
Atlanta made a switch in the nets after No. 1 goalie Kari Lehtonen gave up a shaky goal in his first playoff game. The Rangers scored the first two goals in that one and have yet to trail in the series.
Hedberg got the nod in Game 2, with the Thrashers hoping their backup could duplicate his performance with Pittsburgh in the 2001 playoffs. That year, “Moose” played only nine games during the regular season but started all 18 playoff contests, posting a couple of shutouts before the Penguins were eliminated in the Eastern Conference final.
Except for a couple of unfortunate bounces, Hedberg played brilliantly. He made 37 saves, stopping a couple of breakaways and coming up with a brilliant toe save on Shanahan’s point-blank shot off a rebound.
But the goalie was still shaking his head about Avery’s goal.
“I’ve never seen a puck go like that,” Hedberg said. “It just came flying.”
Kovalchuk scored his first playoff goal off a nifty give-and-go with Tkachuk. The duo set up the play with persistent forechecking, taking control of the puck behind the New York goal. Kovalchuk flipped the puck to Tkachuk and spun into the lower circle for the expected return pass.
It came right on cue, and Kovalchuk didn’t miss. He ripped a shot over Lundqvist’s right shoulder, the puck popping up the water bottle on top of the net.
The excitable Russian took off on a fist-pumping celebration toward middle ice, then headed back the other way to leap into Tkachuk’s arms.
Shanahan and the Rangers were celebrating at the end.
“We came in here to do a job, and we did it,” he said. “But until we win four games, the job’s not done.”
Notes: Atlanta has never led an NHL playoff series. The city’s previous team, the Flames, had a 2-15 record in six post-season appearances before moving to Calgary in 1980. … Both teams scratched the same three players as Game 1. LW Brad Isbister, D Karel Rachunek and C Ryan Hollweg sat out for the Rangers, while D Steve McCarthy, RW J.P. Vigier and C Derek MacKenzie watched for the Thrashers. … New York had another big edge in shots. After outshooting Atlanta 38-24 in Game 1, the Rangers had a 39-28 advantage Saturday. … Thrashers coach Bob Hartley said he hasn’t decided whether Hedberg or Lehtonen will start Game 3.