Thanks to agitating play and unexpected offense from Sean Avery, the New York Rangers have been making a push for the playoffs. A victory over the Montreal Canadiens could prove critical to that goal.
Avery and the Rangers hope to move into a tie for fifth place in the Eastern Conference when they meet the Canadiens at the Bell Centre on Tuesday night.
After a fast start, the Rangers (36-26-8) have endured a mostly disappointing and inconsistent season and had been dropping in the conference standings. That was before the return of Avery, the abrasive forward who came back to the Rangers early this month after his failed stint with Dallas.
Re-acquired to add badly needed energy and grit, Avery has provided that along with surprising offense. He scored two power-play goals and drew a pair of penalties to lead the Rangers to a 4-1 victory over Philadelphia on Sunday - their fourth win in six games since his return and fifth in seven contests overall.
Avery has scored in three straight games and has four goals in seven contests since rejoining New York.
"The first couple of games I was just so nervous, kind of playing a little too hard," said Avery, who has never scored more than 18 goals in a season. "I'm just trying to slow it down, think about the plays and where they're going to end up.
"I feel good as far as just being happy that I'm out playing, and trying to play hard and help the team win. I've gotten some good bounces and I've gotten some good passes. It's tough to explain. Obviously, the team playing better is something that helps a lot."
The Rangers briefly fell out of playoff position last week for the first time this season but have since moved into a tie with Montreal (36-25-8) for the sixth spot. Two points ahead in fifth is Pittsburgh, and the Flyers are four points up on New York in fourth place.
The Rangers may have to fix their power play if they want to keep the pressure on those teams, and Avery has helped boost that anemic unit - at least temporarily. They scored three power-play goals Sunday for just the second time this season and had failed on 14 straight man-advantage chances before Avery broke the drought.
New York will be facing a Montreal team that has beaten it twice this season by a combined 12-5 score. Henrik Lundqvist started both games for the Rangers, and he's lost three straight starts to the Canadiens, allowing 16 goals.
While Montreal has dominated the season series, the Canadiens have dropped two straight and four of six since a four-game winning streak. They followed a 3-2 overtime loss to the woeful New York Islanders on Thursday with a 3-1 defeat to New Jersey on Saturday, falling to 1-1-1 since general manager Bob Gainey took over behind the bench after firing coach Guy Carbonneau.
The Canadiens are closing a four-game homestand and play six of their next seven at home, where they're 21-7-5 this season.
"To stay with our competition, we'll need to pick up more than three points next week," Gainey said.
Montreal backup Jaroslav Halak stopped 45 shots Saturday but fell victim to his team's offensive troubles. The Canadiens have four goals in their last four defeats.
Halak stopped 36 shots to defeat the Rangers on Jan. 7, but Carey Price should be back in net for Montreal on Tuesday. He made 18 saves in the Dec. 4 win over New York.