Monday, April 20, 2009

The Catalyst

AP Photo/ Paul J. Bereswill

Is it just a mere coincidence that the New York Rangers had a late season resurgence and now have the Washington Capitals in a 2-0 playoff stranglehold at the same time they brought back NHL pest Sean Avery?

I don’t think so.

While Avery may agitate many NHL purists with his on- and off-ice incidents, Avery has brought life to a Rangers team that was sleep walking through the regular season. He’s a feisty, scrappy player who knows how to get under his opponents skin. He gets in their heads, and while his opponents put their focus on putting Avery on the ice and shutting him up, they pay a little less attention to Avery’s teammates, freeing them up to move into favorable positions. Avery isn’t just a goon, either; he can put points on the board in times of need, with 73 career goals and 116 assists in 420 NHL contests.

Over the past decade or so, the Rangers have been known as a team high in player salaries but low in energy, effort, and efficiency. In both stints as a Ranger, Avery has been the sparkplug that has ignited the competitiveness in the team.

When Avery was first traded to the Rangers in the 2006-2007 season, he provided a jolt to the team, tallying 20 points in 29 games and helping them compile a 17-4-6 record down the stretch to just eke out the Tampa Bay Lightning and New York Islanders for the 6th seed in the playoffs, as well as helping the team win their first playoff series in ten years. The 2007-2008 saw Avery score four goals and tally 3 assists in the playoffs, aiding the Rangers reach the conference semi-finals for a consecutive year.

Avery then signed with the Dallas Stars as a free agent the following summer. While Avery was suspended by the NHL for his “sloppy seconds” comments, referring to fellow players dating his ex-girlfriends, and subsequently being released, the Rangers were back to their old, lifeless ways. During a stretch from January 28 to February 22, New York had lost 10 of 12 games, including a disgusting 10-2 drubbing at the hands of Dallas.

Head coach Tom Renney was fired on February 23 and replaced by John Tortorella, in the hopes of shaking things up. Tortorella is known as a fiery, passionate coach who isn’t afraid to say what he thinks and gets the most out of his star players, which the Rangers have plenty of. He had won a Stanley Cup with the Tampa Bay Lightning in 2004 and is also the winningest US-born coach in NHL history.

The Rangers weren’t done adding fire to the ice though—no this team had been too lifeless for too long. New York claimed Avery off waivers on March 3, and the move has paid immediate dividends. Avery again proved to be a sparkplug, helping the Rangers finish the season with a record of 11-6-1 and clinching a spot in the playoffs.

While Avery is considered an NHL “villain” or “heel”, he has not been a locker room disturbance for the Rangers. He has yet to be suspended for anything in either stint as a Ranger (and he has had his share of incidents) and plays within the rules, albeit within varying interpretations. He isn’t a Terrell Owens-type cancer in the locker room; he doesn’t call out teammates and belittle them. Think of him as more of a less funny, less liked Charles Barkley. He’s outlandish, he’s controversial, but he goes out on the ice and plays, doesn’t take a day off, and it’s just what the Rangers need. His tenacity has lit a fire underneath the team.

Now, behind the new energy from Tortorella and Avery, as well as the fantastic goalkeeping from Henrik Lundqvist, the Rangers have jumped out to a 2-0 lead over the favored Washington Capitals in their first round playoff matchup. Superstar Alex Ovechkin hasn’t scored a single goal in the two games. And now the series turns over to Madison Square Garden, where you can be sure the fans will be behind their team, and the Rangers will look to finish off the Caps.

Will the Rangers have a good enough combination of energy and talent to win a Stanley Cup? That remains to be seen. But vilify Sean Avery all you want, just know that’s what he wants you to do. Know that he is happy to carry all the attention, while Scott Gomez and Nik Antropov fly under the radar and put the puck in the net.

And know that Avery is the catalyst that gets the Rangers going. Their success and his return isn’t just a coincidence.

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