UNIONDALE, N.Y. (AP) -Sean Avery found a comfortable spot on the New York Rangers bench - up against the partition that separated it from the New York Islanders, but close enough for them to hear him chirp.
Hockey's most-hated man returned to the NHL on Thursday night, after being banished for three months, in the way he wanted: on a big stage, against the biggest rival, and in the uniform he has worn during his best days in the game.
"During warmups is probably when it was setting in with me," Avery said of his journey back to the NHL that culminated with the Rangers' 4-2 win over the Islanders. "What a great place to start, on the road, on the Island."
Young Islanders forward Kyle Okposo tried to face forward on the bench as Avery yapped in the direction of Okposo's teammate Blake Comeau, who had just drilled the noted agitator with a hard check.
Comeau gave Avery another shot, but the Rangers forward kept his cool as a linesman ushered him away from the fray. Avery is great at getting under the skin of opponents, but if he is going to last under tough new coach John Tortorella, he will have to keep his emotions in check and not do anything outside of the boundaries of the team.
Actions like that are what got him in trouble in the past. He didn't retaliate, but was whistled for cross-checking in the third period.
"If there was any nerves coming in, I certainly got rid of them quick," said Avery, who skated 19 shifts and logged 13 minutes, 56 seconds of ice time. "It felt good to be playing for this team again and getting the win. That's what I came here to do."
After 1 1/2 successful seasons with the Rangers, Avery left New York last summer for a lucrative, four-year deal with the Dallas Stars. He never really fit in with his new teammates, and when Avery sought out cameras before a game against Calgary on Dec. 2 and made crude comments about players dating his former girlfriends, his time with the Stars was over.
The NHL struck first with a six-game ban, and Avery went for counseling. When the suspension ended, the Stars didn't want him back. He went unclaimed on waivers, landed in the minors for a month, and finally made it back to the Rangers, who grabbed him at half price and gave him a chance to resurrect his career.
Back in December, Tortorella was harshly critical of Avery while working as a television analyst. Not knowing he would be coaching the Rangers and Avery a few months later, Tortorella said the forward embarrassed himself, the Stars, and the NHL, and didn't belong in the league.
Now he wants to get the most out of a player he believes can be an effective force when he focuses on the right things. The Rangers are 51-23-13 with Avery and 9-13-3 when he was out, dating to his acquisition from Los Angeles in February 2007.
"I just don't want him to get involved in people trying to get him off his game," said Tortorella, 2-1-1 since replacing fired coach Tom Renney. "He is going to have to deal with that, and I think he is ready to. I think he understands the situation. There are going to be times when maybe people are looking for him to try to get him off his game. He has to think about the team and I think he did."
While he might have toned down his act, it hasn't completely left his game. He jawed from the bench, and later picked himself up off the ice after being face-planted into the glass.
All in a night's work.
He had his first run-in during the first period after being hit by Comeau in front of the benches, but didn't push back in the skirmish. He delivered hits to defensemen Bruno Gervais and Radek Martinek from behind and absorbed his biggest blow when Trent Hunter smashed him face-first into the glass by the penalty box.
Avery, playing in his first NHL game since Nov. 30, was slow getting to his feet and skated slowly to the scrum in the Rangers zone, but didn't get involved. Hunter was called for boarding and Avery kept his cool.
It won't just be the Islanders who will target Avery for things he does on the ice and the infamous comments he made off it.
"I think that's safe to say," Islanders forward Dean McAmmond said. "Including myself, there were a lot of players that were not impressed with his actions. The whole league wasn't. I think hockey players pride themselves on being character guys.
"You battle between the whistles, battle against guys you know, your friends and you might even end up trading punches with one of your buddies. But after the game is where you have to still show some character."
Avery said following his first Rangers practice on Wednesday that he had changed and had grown up. He might have softened while he was away, but was quick to note that "even a milder version of Sean Avery is still not that mild."
"He is playing his game," Rangers forward Scott Gomez said. "He drew a penalty. If he plays like that and everybody plays like that, we're going to be fine."