NEW YORK (AP) -Early in February, the New York Rangers looked a lot like the team that missed the playoffs seven straight times before last season. That was before Sean Avery brought his sandpaper style to Broadway.
Now the Rangers are one win away from a return trip to the postseason.
Avery had two goals, an assist, and a takedown in a fight with Toronto agitator Darcy Tucker during New York's 7-2 victory over the Maple Leafs on Sunday night that had significant playoff ramifications for both teams with just one week left in the regular season.
Avery's impact on the Rangers has been so strong that captain Jaromir Jagr credited the NHL's most noted pest as being the difference in New York's rise to sixth place in the Eastern Conference.
"He was just unbelievable," Jagr said. "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."
That has been clear since he brought his grit to the Rangers, who lacked an edge before his arrival from Los Angeles on Feb. 5. New York was three places below a postseason 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.
"I've just come in and played hard. "I think Jags is exaggerating a little bit. A lot of guys have played well. It's just my game that I play every night and try to keep it consistent."
The Rangers won their seventh in eight games and moved one point ahead of Tampa Bay with three games left. One more win and New York will be back in the playoffs for the second consecutive year.
"That's what we've been working for for six or seven weeks," Avery said.
While the Rangers are on the brink of getting back into the playoffs, the defending champion Carolina Hurricanes are trying to give themselves a chance for a repeat.
The Hurricanes nearly lost to Florida on Sunday, but rallied late in the third period for a 4-3 win in overtime. Carolina is still 10th in the East, but closed to one point of Toronto and two of Montreal and the playoff cutoff with three games remaining.
In other NHL games, it was Detroit 4, Columbus 1; Chicago 2, Edmonton 1; New Jersey 3, Boston 1; San Jose 6, Los Angeles 2.
If the Hurricanes fail to make up the difference, it will mark the first time in modern NHL history that neither Stanley Cup finalist from the previous season made the playoffs. The defending West champion Edmonton Oilers have already been eliminated.
And then there is Toronto, seeking its first title since 1967. But the Leafs took a big hit in the loss to the Rangers. They have three games left, too, including a season-ending home matchup with Montreal on Saturday.
"We didn't play well. You have to give them credit," Tucker said of the Rangers. "They worked hard and did what they had to do to win the game. We can't dwell on it.
"We have a lot of character in our dressing room. We found ways throughout the year to do it, and we just have to find a way to win."
Avery got New York even at 1 in the first period, set up Martin Straka's team-leading 29th goal in the middle frame, and gave the Rangers a 5-2 lead later in the second with his 18th of the season.
He fought Tucker in the first period when the game was still in doubt. That changed in New York's three-goal second period.
Michael Nylander scored his 25th goal to match his career best and added an assist. Ryan Callahan and Michael Rozsival also scored for the Rangers, who have points in 15 of 17 (12-2-3). Henrik Lundqvist made 25 saves for his 36th win.
"I was definitely nervous this afternoon," Avery said. "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."
At Sunrise, Fla., Ray Whitney's power-play goal 1:30 into overtime eliminated Florida from the playoff race. The Panthers blew a two-goal lead in the third period and lost for the sixth time in seven games to the Hurricanes.
The Panthers got two first-period goals from Jozef Stumpel but couldn't hold off Carolina as Chad LaRose tied it at 3-3 with 3:25 left in regulation. That followed Rod Brind'Amour's short-handed tally four minutes earlier.
At East Rutherford, N.J., Brian Gionta scored the winning goal in his first game in almost a month, Jay Pandolfo tallied twice, and New Jersey took the lead in the Atlantic Division.
The Devils' fourth win in five games moved them a point ahead of idle Pittsburgh for the division lead.
Martin Brodeur made 17 saves to post his 46th win, one shy of the NHL single-season mark set by Philadelphia's Bernie Parent in 1973-74.
Gionta missed 19 of the previous 21 games because of a groin injury.
At Columbus, Ohio, Tomas Holmstrom scored twice and Detroit took the lead in the overall NHL standings.
Brett Lebda had a goal and an assist, and Pavel Datsyuk scored for Detroit, which broke the game open with three second-period goals. The Red Wings have earned points in six straight (3-0-3), surpassing Buffalo in the race for the Presidents' Trophy.
Detroit also padded its Central Division lead to three points over Nashville.
At San Jose, Calif., Jonathan Cheechoo had his third three-goal game of the season to lift the Sharks to their sixth straight home win.
It was Cheechoo's eighth career hat trick. In his past 10 games, he has 17 points (12 goals and five assists).
The Sharks moved back into a tie with Dallas for fifth place in the Western Conference.
At Chicago, Patrick Sharp's short-handed breakaway goal early in the third period snapped a tie and lifted the host Blackhawks. Sharp reached the 20-goal mark for the first time.
Tuomo Ruutu also scored for the Blackhawks, who won for the second time in three days following a six-game losing streak.
Raffi Torres had the lone goal for Edmonton, which has one victory in 17 games (1-15-1).