LEFT WING Sean Avery's physical presence and willingness to establish a forecheck helped the Rangers win their first playoff game in 10 years and take a 2--0 series lead over the Thrashers at week's end. Coach Tom Renney and alternate captain Brendan Shanahan deserve a lot of credit for keeping Avery (below) focused and playing more maturely. Avery, 28, whom the Rangers acquired on Feb. 5 from the Kings, is no longer the sideshow he was in Los Angeles but a big-time player who has the ability to swing a series because of his physical commitment to the game.... While many would name Calgary's Dion Phaneuf, 22, as the top young defenseman in hockey, San Jose might give the nod to Nashville's Shea Weber after facing him in their opening-round series. The 21-year-old Weber, who is 6'3" and 213 pounds and can log big minutes, stifled Sharks star Joe Thornton in Game 2 and is a major reason why the Predators have a chance in this series. A second-round pick in the 2003 draft, Weber has the potential to become one of the NHL's best defensemen.... Neil Smith spent only 40 days as the Islanders' general manager last summer, but he left a lasting legacy. The players that Smith acquired were crucial to New York's late-season playoff push. Among them are first-line center Mike Sillinger, the team's second-leading scorer (59 points), who was begging clubs for a contract last off-season, and defenseman Tom Poti (two assists this postseason), who was cast off by the Rangers last summer. The Isles may not win their series against the Sabres, but they deserve credit for their hard work and intensity.... The Red Wings, who had dominated their series against the Flames, have a star center in Pavel Datsyuk, who had two goals and an assist this postseason after having gone without a goal in his previous 21 playoff games (SI, April 9). Datsyuk signed a seven-year, $46.9 million deal two weeks ago, and while Detroit general manager Ken Holland took heat from other G.M.'s about that contract, no G.M. in the league understands the needs of his team better than Holland. The decision to lock up Datsyuk proved that.... There has been a lot of criticism regarding Game 1 of the Dallas- Vancouver series, which went into four overtimes. The NHL might have to look at different ways to settle OT games; perhaps the best would be to have 20 minutes of 5-on-5 sudden death, 20 minutes of 4-on-4 and 20 minutes of 3-on-3. Overtime is great theater, but it doesn't always produce great hockey.