Mike Milbury understands why some officials would be keeping "an eagle eye" on Sean Avery for the rest of this season, but the NHL on NBC analyst doesn't think that's fair to the New York Rangers or to Avery, known to many in the Big Apple as "The Grate One."
Milbury will be taking notes and keeping his own eyes on Avery and the rest of the Rangers and Philadelphia Flyers this Sunday when the NHL returns to NBC at 12:30 ET for the Game of the Week at Madison Square Garden.
It's the second in a home-and-home weekend series between the Rangers and Flyers, one that could go a long way in showing if the Rangers are a playoff contender or pretender.
"It was very apparent in the game last Sunday in Madison Square Garden that from the moment (Avery) stepped on the ice, there was a buzz in the crowd and he got under enough people's skin," Milbury told NHL.com. "(Boston's Milan) Lucic got away with what I consider to be at least a roughing penalty when he got hit after the whistle and Avery got charged with what I thought was a very borderline call for interference.
"It looks like they (referees) have their eyes sharpened for Avery and that is unfortunate because I don't think anybody deserves that. I suppose given his track record it's understandable, but it's not acceptable. It's an unfair disadvantage to Avery and the Rangers and it just might (slow him down), but I think it will take a little bit of time here for people to forget some of his reputation."
In Milbury's mind, Avery's ability to be Avery is one of the big keys to the Rangers' quest for a playoff berth. They enter this weekend's home-and-home series against the Flyers in seventh place in the Eastern Conference.
The Flyers, sitting comfortably in fourth place, are playing remarkable hockey as they own a 10-6-1 record since Feb. 1. The Rangers are 4-1-2 since John Tortorella took over Feb. 23 and started infusing his "safe is death" attacking style.
"The record says what they are and their record is borderline," Milbury said of the Rangers. "They have an outstanding goaltender (Henrik Lundqvist) and they should have better offensive production than they are generally getting, but they are a bubble team. That is the long and short of it. They might make it, and than again they might not, but at least they have showed a little bit of a heartbeat here that if you're a Ranger fan gives you at least some encouragement in that direction.
"I believe Tortorella has them playing with a bit of a purpose and an edge now that seemed to be waning under the previous coach (Tom Renney). I don't want to twist him in the wind in any way, but it just wasn't working."
For the Flyers, this weekend represents another opportunity for goaltenders Martin Biron and Antero Niittymaki (should he play) to gain confidence as they head down the final stretch. It also should give Danny Briere more opportunities to find his scoring touch.
Briere has battled groin and abdominal muscle injuries all season, limiting him to just 13 games. Milbury wants to believe Briere could be a huge difference-maker for the Flyers, but he's just not so sure anymore.
"That's pretty much up to Danny Briere, isn't it?" Milbury said. "If he becomes the slick, offensive distributing center that the Flyers signed him to be it's one thing. If he becomes a perimeter player it's entirely different.
"There is a lot of pressure on Briere, and there should be. They gave him a huge contract over a ton of years and he should be able to handle some pressure. I think he clearly has potential to be a big force for the Flyers, but I can't tell you with certainty that he will be."
By Sunday evening, he should know more.
Contact Dan Rosen at email@example.com.