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The reeling New York Rangers made a pair of deals before Wednesday's trade deadline to bolster themselves offensively and upgrade their defensive corps, but more eyes will likely be on an earlier acquisition Thursday night on Long Island.
Infamous instigator Sean Avery headlines a group of newcomers who could be in the lineup against the New York Islanders, and the Rangers hope veterans Nik Antropov and Derek Morris also provide a boost as they look to strengthen their grip on a postseason berth.
After starting the season as one of the NHL's hottest teams, the Rangers (32-24-8) have stumbled offensively while going 3-8-4 in their last 15 games as the prospect of missing the playoffs has become a possibility. They're tied with Pittsburgh for the final two spots in the Eastern Conference, with Carolina and Buffalo in close pursuit.
The Rangers began a major shakeup Feb. 23, firing coach Tom Renney and replacing him with John Tortorella before making a series of other splashes this week - most notably the claiming of Avery off waivers Tuesday.
The Rangers went 50-20-16 with Avery in the lineup over the previous two seasons before the polarizing left wing known for his controversial antics signed with Dallas last summer. He was waived by the Stars after making crude comments involving an ex-girlfriend and Calgary defenseman Dion Phaneuf before the Stars' game against the Flames on Dec. 2.
Avery hasn't played since Nov. 30 but could be in the lineup Thursday, although Tortorella would not confirm his return.
"Obviously I want to make the best of this opportunity. I'm not perfect, but I'm going to work as hard as I can to make everyone happy, work hard and win games," said Avery, who said he has changed after undergoing behavioral counseling during his absence.
"I think even a milder version of Sean Avery is still ... not that mild," he said.
New York is in need of Avery's physical and often agitating play, and the forward also brings offensive ability and aggressive forechecking to a New York team that ranks last in the league with 2.34 goals per game.
The bigger offensive spark could come from the 6-foot-6 Antropov, whose 21 goals with Toronto this season would lead the Rangers. He was acquired Wednesday for a pair of draft picks, and the team also sent Dmitri Kalinin, Nigel Dawes and Petr Prucha to Phoenix for the defenseman Morris.
Though the Rangers managed one goal in each of Tortorella's first two games, they finally broke out Saturday night, scoring two goals in the first 1:08 of a 6-1 win over Colorado. The Rangers had averaged 1.6 goals in their previous 14 games, with their power play going 4-of-48 (8.3 percent) over that span.
"We are starting to get the system down," center Scott Gomez said of Tortorella's fast-paced style. "We are starting to get a feel for how he wants us to play."
The Rangers haven't won consecutive games since beating Anaheim and Carolina on Jan. 20 and 27, but Gomez said there would be "no more excuses" after the Rangers' four-day layoff this week.
There certainly won't be against their local rivals, especially after the NHL-worst Islanders (20-36-7) traded captain and leading goal scorer Bill Guerin to Pittsburgh for a draft pick before Wednesday's deadline. They're 29th in the league in scoring, ahead of only the Rangers.
Still, the Isles will be looking for their third straight win after beating the Avalanche 4-2 on Monday night. Yann Danis made 20 saves and is 3-1-0 with a 0.75 goals-against average in his last four starts.
This game is the final meeting of the season between the teams, with the Rangers having won four of the first five.