New York Rangers\' Sean Avery, centre, puts the puck past Toronto Maple Leafs goalie Jean-Sebastian Aubin to score as Yanic Perreault moves in during the second period. (AP Photo/Ed Betz)
Avery is much better at annoying than scoring, but he did a lot of both Sunday night in the Rangers' 7-2 victory over the Toronto Maple Leafs. "I was definitely nervous this afternoon," Avery said after posting two goals and an assist. "I didn't think I was going to get a couple of goals or anything like that, I just wanted to come out and really play well and try and be a difference."
He was every bit of that as he's been since he brought his gritty style to the Rangers, who lacked an edge before his arrival from Los Angeles on Feb. 5. New York was three places below a post-season spot, five points off the pace, but have gone 16-5-5 with Avery in the lineup. He has eight goals and 11 assists in those 26 games.
The Rangers won their seventh in eight games and moved one point ahead of Tampa Bay into sixth place in the Eastern Conference with three games left. One more win and New York will be back in the playoffs.
"I thought the whole team played good, but he was just unbelievable," said Jaromir Jagr, who had a goal and assist. "I think he was the biggest factor in our season lately. Once he came here, he changed everything. We got a great player who can score goals, play rough, play tough. He's tough to play against."
Avery got New York even at 1-1 in the first period, set up Martin Straka's team-leading 29th in the middle frame, and gave the Rangers a 5-2 lead later in the second with his 18th of the season.
He showed his grit by fighting Darcy Tucker in the first period when the game was still in doubt. That changed in New York's three-goal second period.
Michael Nylander had his career-best tying 25th goal and an assist. Ryan Callahan and Michael Rozsival also scored for the Rangers, who have points in 15 of 17 games (12-2-3). Henrik Lundqvist made 25 saves for his 36th win.
The Maple Leafs, who showed tired legs in their third game in four days, are stuck in ninth - one point behind Montreal and the playoff cutoff. The Maple Leafs also have three games remaining, including a home contest against Montreal to finish the season.
"It was a 2-2 game," said Tucker. "We needed to be better at the start of the second and they took what they needed and ran with it."
Alexei Ponikarovsky's power-play goal put Toronto ahead less than two minutes in, and Boyd Devereaux scored his fourth in six games to get the Leafs into a 2-2 tie. But Andrew Raycroft allowed four goals on 16 shots and was yanked 4:42 into the second period of his 39th start in 40 games after Straka made it 4-2.
Jean-Sebastien Aubin came on and gave up Avery's second unassisted goal of the night at 14:53. New York scored three times in the second on six shots.
Avery got the Rangers on the board 5:19 in, 3:31 after Ponikarovsky's 21st goal, when he got to a rebound of Shanahan's shot above the right circle and sent the puck through traffic and by Raycroft. He punctuated the goal with his signature fist thrust, and celebrated with an emphatic slap of the glass.
That led to the first of two discussions between the officials and Avery in the period.
"I'm very selective in my hearing like I was in grade school and with my mom," Avery said with a straight face. "I have a switch that I turn on and off. It was off at that point."
Less than a minute after Tucker served a penalty for roughing Avery, the Rangers' agitator tapped his Toronto counterpart on the leg with his stick before a faceoff. The feisty forwards held a lengthy conversation while waiting for the puck drop, and Tucker had his gloves off the moment it hit the ice.
"Darcy has always been a whiner. You say you don't like his hair and he'll be upset," Avery said.
Avery was slow to shed his gloves, much to Tucker's dismay, but then the fight was on. Both landed good shots during the bout that ended with Avery slamming Tucker onto his back.
"I'm going to take the high road in this one," Tucker said. "He is what he is. He'll have a comeback for everything."
Devereaux scored with 3:25 left in the first but Callahan gave the Rangers a 3-2 lead 1:35 into the second.
Avery then set up Straka with a sling pass as he fell forward. The puck caromed off Leafs defenceman Bryan McCabe to Straka, who slammed it in.
Avery added his second goal with 5:07 left in the second, Rozsival added a power-play tally 6:49 into the third, and Jagr tied Straka for the team lead with his 29th at 12:14.
Notes: Rangers RW Jed Ortmeyer returned after sitting out Saturday's win at Philadelphia because of a knee injury. ... Maple Leafs captain Mats Sundin, one goal shy of tying Darryl Sittler's franchise record (389), was held without one for the ninth straight game. ... Nylander scored 25 with Chicago in the 2000-01 season. ... The Rangers, outshot 27-25, scored five times on their final 13 shots.