Sean Avery's on his best behavior
Sean Avery is still running his mouth, but his game is more disciplined
The pest took no penalties and produced three points in his first two games
Two rookie defensemen have been crucial to the Rangers' hot 6-1-0 start
Three games in, and already it's apparent that there's something different about Sean Avery's head. This goes beyond the new helmet he was hawking after scoring two goals in the Rangers' 7-2 drubbing of the Toronto Maple Leafs on Monday night.
"I want to tell all the kids out there to definitely switch from their Bauer helmets to these Cascade helmets," he said.
"Your check's in the mail," a reporter wittily remarked.
No, the difference goes a bit deeper. This isn't the same Avery we saw during the Rangers' playoff series against the Capitals last spring. That guy racked up 24 penalty minutes in the seven-game series, including a rather nasty two in the box during Game 4 when he caught Washington defenseman Milan Jurcina square in the face with the butt end of his stick. That type of play drew the ire of Rangers coach John Tortorella, who benched the irritating winger for Game 5, apparently unhappy with the lack of discipline Avery displayed on the ice.
Don't be mistaken. Avery's verbal game is still very much the same. "Some of the things he says [on the ice], you wouldn't believe," Ducks coach Randy Carlyle told reporters earlier this week. But for the first time in a long time, Avery seems to be using his head just as much as his mouth.
"I think he's staying within himself, and that's important," Tortorella said on Monday. "He's doing all the things we want him to do on the ice, and he's not sitting in the box."
Perhaps Avery is maturing or he's finally taken Tortorella's message (or the NHL's, for that matter) to heart. Perhaps it's the fact that he's back in New York, where he's thrived most. Or maybe it's just too early to tell for sure. But for the time being, Avery has shown a level of self-control that he lacked when, say, he summoned cameras to mock Dion Phaneuf with ugly comments about Avery's ex-girlfriend, or when he helped the Dallas Stars rack up 69 penalty minutes in one game last season. In his first three games after a preseason knee injury kept him out the first week, Avery has drawn more penalties (one) than he's taken (none), and he's contributed two goals and an assist on the Rangers' third line.
Those are tangibles, but Avery is better known for his sharp tongue than his sharp shot. He's able to get under his opponents' skin even without being around; the mere mention of his name seems to elicit a certain level of annoyance around the league. His shenanigans -- from the Brodeur bop to the fashionista front -- overshadow what has been a fairly productive couple of years, especially while sporting blue, white and red. The Rangers are 63-26-17 with Avery in the lineup; 9-13-3 without him. He's scored 40 percent of his goals as a Ranger, despite the fact that he's been in New York for just a quarter of his career.
"We've been dealing with his stuff for years now. It's in one ear, out the other," Toronto defenseman Mike Komisarek says. "He's not winning games with his talking."
For sure, but he isn't losing them with his mouth or his antics, either.
Kids are alright
The most surprising twist to the Rangers' 6-1-0 start isn't necessarily the 4.00 goals they're averaging per game (tied with Atlanta at the top of the league). They saw a marked scoring increase (2.33 to 2.76) after Tortorella took over last February. It isn't really who's leading the charge. Marian Gaborik has averaged .59 goals per game over the last four years, behind only Alex Ovechkin and Ilya Kovalchuk. No, the biggest surprise is where the rest of the goals are coming from.
In seven games, Rangers defensemen have scored seven of the team's 28. Compare that to the 25 of New York's total of 200 in all of last season. Two rookies -- former Boston University standout Matt Gilroy and 19-year-old Michael Del Zotto -- have been revelations. Gilroy, 25, the 2009 Hobey Baker Award-winner, walked on at BU and four years later led the Terriers to the national championship in a thrilling Frozen Four final. A solid work ethic made him the best-prepared Ranger on the ice when training camp opened in Septemer. Del Zotto is the Rangers' first teenage defenseman since Brian Leetch. His stunning emergence has been celebrated by the MSG faithful, and his offensive-minded style seems to suit the up-tempo system Tortorella has put in place. Together, the two blueliners had three goals and five assists in New York's first seven games.
The infusion of new blood has been crucial, but even more than the change in personnel, the Rangers are playing differently, more aggressively than they had under former coach Tom Renney. But Tortorella wants to be clear: His is not a run-and-gun system. Instead, he describes it as: "You need to take a chance."
Captain Chris Drury calls it "on your toes."
"If you are going to win consistently in this league, we need to get scoring all the way through the lineup and we have been stressing that with our D," Tortorella said.
Of course, the problem with having the defensemen pinch in and remain aggressive in the offensive zone is that they leave themselves vulnerable to odd-man rushes the other way. But an emphasis on conditioning in camp -- so physically taxing that the Rangers are still talking about it a month later -- have helped them cover most of their mistakes. And goalie Henrik Lundqvist provides a superb last line of defense.
These Rangers are showing that maybe their season won't live or die with Gaborik's surgically-repaired hips after all.
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