|Sean Avery scored two goals and added an assist on Sunday night. Sparking the Rangers to their big second period, he had his fifth multi-point game since joining the team on Feb. 5.
|Sam and Joe Recap the Rangers' Big Win ||WMP |
|Avery Talks About Rangers' Strong Team Play ||WMP |
|Renney on Avery, Win Over Leafs ||WMP |
|Lundqvist Discusses Sunday's Performance ||WMP |
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If Sunday night's performance at Madison Square Garden was any indication of how the Rangers will do once the 2007 Stanley Cup playoffs begin, then Blueshirts fans have much to look forward to later this month.
Dominating every phase of the game against a highly motivated Toronto team looking to re-enter the playoff picture, the Blueshirts crushed the Leafs 7-2 on Sunday, tying their season high for the most goals in one outing.
The complete devastation of the same Maple Leafs who had beaten them in their two latest meetings, including a 9-2 rout last Dec. 16 at the Air Canada Centre, showed just how far the Blueshirts have come since the NHL trade deadline.
A remarkable 12-2-3 run over these past 17 games has not only lifted the Rangers back into the playoff picture but has made them one of the league's hottest teams at this critical time of year. Three games remain in the regular season, and the Rangers are playing as well as they have performed at any moment since training camp opened back in September.
Indeed, in the two weekend wins over Philadelphia and the Leafs, the Blueshirts outscored their opponents by an eye-popping 13-6 margin. Their game-ending center ice salute in front of a delirious MSG crowd put the exclamation point on a 48-hour span in which just about everything went right.
"Certainly as a team we were prepared to do what we needed to do to compete," said Rangers head coach Tom Renney. "Prior to the game, and preparing our guys, that is the one thing that I wanted to do tonight, compete from start to finish, regardless of the circumstances."
With their win on Sunday, the Rangers passed Tampa Bay for sole possession of sixth place in the NHL's Eastern Conference. They'll have a chance to clinch their second consecutive playoff berth on Tuesday night at the Nassau Coliseum, where a win over the Islanders would ensure that they could finish no lower than eighth place in the conference standings.
"That is exciting," Sean Avery said of the opportunity to clinch. "That has been what we are working towards for the last six or seven weeks. We just have to go into Long Island and take care of the business."
Rangers captain Jaromir Jagr also said the team would be completely focused for its game on Tuesday night, saying the team was looking for at least twice the number of wins needed to clinch.
"We didn't win anything yet," Jagr said. "I thought we took a huge step forward towards making the playoffs. I feel like we need to win two more to make it. It is going to be tough but hopefully we can do it."
The heroes on Sunday were many, but none stood bigger than Avery and Jagr. Avery sparked the Rangers through the first two periods, and Jagr carried them the rest of the way. Each player had three points on the night, with Avery getting two goals and the team's first "Gordie Howe hat trick" of the 2006-07 season.
"I've had one or two (Howe hat tricks before), but I would like to get a real hat trick at some point," said Avery.
Avery had not played in the first three Rangers-Maple Leafs games this season, because he did not join the team until a Feb. 5 trade with Los Angeles. By the end of the game on Sunday, the Leafs surely realized just how fortunate they were to have avoided him in those earlier meetings.
"I think that I have given him an opportunity to play a vital role for our team," Renney said of Avery. "I have talked to him about leadership, maybe it is something that he hasn't had a lot of responsibility with in the past and that we expect it from him here. As much as he is still a young player, he does have a real good hockey sense, an intuitive feel for the game. That allows people like him to, where your team needs help, deliver on that."
He emerged as a one-man wrecking crew, scoring two goals and assisting on another to help the Blueshirts break open the game with a three-goal second period, turning a 2-2 game into what became a laugher.
In the final period, Jagr put the finishing touches on the victory, assisting on Michal Rozsival's power-play goal at 6:49 and later closing out the night with his 29th goal of the season off a pass from Brad Isbister at 12:14.
Martin Straka also scored his 29th goal on Sunday, as both he and Jagr moved into the Rangers' goals lead. They have a chance to become the Rangers' first two 30-goal scorers since three players achieved the milestone in 2000-01.
Avery and Jagr's dominating efforts, coupled with 25 saves from netminder Henrik Lundqvist, truly propelled the Rangers, who scored five unanswered goals down the stretch.
"It is going to be intense," Lundqvist said of the Rangers' final three regular-season games. "The last couple games against them (New York Islanders) have been really good games. Montreal is the same way and Pittsburgh is probably going to battle for the first spot so we have three big games left. We definitely needed the win tonight. It feels good to have a good weekend. I think we played much better than we did last night. We just have to keep going. There is still three games to go and we aren't there yet."
The big second period featured the major turning point of the game – goals from rookie Ryan Callahan, Straka and Avery that drove Toronto's starting goaltender out of the net and ultimately prevented the Leafs from re-entering the East's playoff picture.
That second-period onslaught came after Toronto had fought back to tie a 2-1 game late in the first period.
"We had a lead and we didn't have to fight until the end," said Jagr. "If you play back-to-back games, it is going to help you. I think we had a lot more energy than them."
Callahan got the scoring parade going when he restored the lead for the Rangers with the eventual game-winning goal early in the second period. Taking a pass from Jed Ortmeyer in the neutral zone, Callahan skated over the blue line and fired a routine shot from the right faceoff circle. Leafs starting goaltender Andrew Raycroft made the initial stop, but the puck rebounded straight up into the air and then fell straight down, taking a strange but fortunate hop forward through the stunned Raycroft's pads.
"It feels good coming in here and being able to contribute in a playoff push," said Callahan. "It feels great and I hope it can continue."
That goal at 1:35 brought the fired-up MSG crowd's noise level up to full throttle, and the acoustics increased another notch just over three minutes later, when Straka gave the Rangers a 4-2 lead and ended Raycroft's evening.
Avery started the play when he came down the left wing and misfired on a shot from the left circle. Staying with the puck as he lost his balance, he swept it toward the net, where it rebounded off a Toronto defenseman and right to Straka. The Rangers center promptly knocked it home at 4:42 for the team-leading 29th goal that Jagr would later match.
"Shanny (Brendan Shanahan) passed it so hard that he caught me off guard, and then I just tried to throw it to the net," said Avery. "You just have to go to the net, that's how a lot of goals are scored."
Following the Callahan and Avery goals, Toronto head coach Paul Maurice decided he had seen enough of his starting goaltender and pulled him for backup Jean-Sebastien Aubin.
Avery's assist on the Straka goal gave him the Rangers' first "Gordie Howe hat trick" of the season just under 25 minutes into the game. With a goal and a fight in the first, plus his assist in the second, Avery played the type of game that made Mr. Hockey famous and has endeared Avery himself to the Garden Faithful.
"You rather them like you than dislike you," Avery said of the fans. "It is a passionate building. It is an amazing building to play in. I am happy they are enjoying what I bring to the team."
Avery certainly earned his captain's respect as well.
"I thought the whole team played good but he (Avery) was unbelievable," Jagr said.
Jagr also called Avery the biggest difference on the team that earlier in the season wasn't playing at its current level.
"I think Jags is exaggerating on that," Avery said. "Henrik has played well. A lot of guys have played well and I think Shanny coming back has really helped us."
Once they established their two-goal lead, the Rangers turned the game over to Lundqvist right before the second period's midpoint, and the goalie responded with four saves during a tripping penalty against Colton Orr. He stopped Darcy Tucker twice in the power play's first 30 seconds and later kicked out Ian White's wrister with three seconds left in the Orr penalty
When Jagr went off for holding just 24 seconds after the Orr penalty expired, Lundqvist continued his outstanding play while shorthanded. He made his best save when he Bryan McCabe's drive from the right circle with his blocker at 11:07
Avery did it again for the Rangers at the 14:53 mark, scoring his second goal of the game and the first against Aubin. Picking up a loose puck in the left corner, Avery calmly skated toward the crease and flung a backhand at the net just as he arrived. The shot handcuffed Aubin for a commanding 5-2 lead.
"The first one (goal) I got lucky on. It came right to me off of a line change and I just grabbed it and shot it. Shanny was in front of the net and it went in," said Avery. "And the second one was a great forecheck by (Petr) Prucha and (Blair) Betts, and I was able to get it and get the shot off."
Rozsival stretched the lead to 6-2 during a penalty to the Leafs' Matt Stajan -- the only call against either team in the final 20 minutes. Rozsival's 10th goal of the season came off a centering pass from Michael Nylander as the defenseman pinched in from the right side.
Just over five minutes after Rozsival scored, Jagr finished off the Leafs from just outside the crease, converting a pass in front from linemate Isbister, who ended the game with two assists for his first multi-point performance in a Rangers uniform.
In the first period, the Leafs nearly achieved their strategy of taking the home crowd out of the game early, but the red-hot Rangers made sure that wasn't going to happen.
After giving up the game's first tally on a power play less than two minutes into the game, the Blueshirts erupted for a pair of goals from Avery and Nylander to take a lead. They eventually allowed a late goal that gave them a 2-2 tie with the Leafs after 20 minutes of action.
That goal, scored by Toronto's Boyd Devereaux with only 3:25 left in the opening period, enabled the Leafs to regain some of the momentum the Blueshirts had stolen away from them with their two-goal outburst. It would turn out, however, to be the Leafs' last hurrah.
Before Devereaux scored, Avery's goal at 5:19 of the first brought the crowd back into the game, and Nylander's score just under four minutes later took the building's decibel level into the stratosphere.
Avery got his big night off to a fast start, knotting the game with an unassisted goal after a loose puck came all the way out to him at the top of the right circle. Sending a wrist shot through traffic, he managed to pick the left side of the net, just inside the post for the 1-1 tie.
Nylander stretched the Rangers' lead to 2-1 with a stylish goal at the 9:14 mark, resulting from a tremendous individual effort that the left the Toronto defense flat-footed.
Taking the puck from Isbister in the right corner, Nylander cut through the right faceoff circle and then across the slot before patiently waiting for an opening. With Raycroft out of position, Nylander fired a wrister into the left side of the net.
The goal was Nylander's 25th of the season, tying his career-high set with Chicago in 2000-01. It was also his 80th point of the season, breaking another career high set during his first season with the Blueshirts one year ago. Nylander would later go on to add an assist on the Rozsival goal.
"We had a lot more chances in other games where we (only) scored one or two goals," said Nylander. "Today we got the puck in the net and capitalized on our chances and got a few lucky bounces. That is why we have been working hard."
While Avery and Nylander provided the first-period offense, it was Lundqvist coming up with key saves at the other end. The Rangers outshot the Blueshirts 12-11 in the first period, but several of Lundqvist's nine saves were of the spectacular variety. He made his biggest first-period stops against Bates Battaglia at 4:02, Tomas Kaberle at 5:36, and Chad Kilger at 7:20.
"It is tough when you are playing great and you don't get the breaks," said Maurice, whose team was coming off an emotional overtime win against Pittsburgh. "We didn't have any gas. In the second period when they took the lead we couldn't bring it back in. We looked tired. We are going to take the day off tomorrow. That will be enough for us to get our legs back and get back to the way we were playing."
The Rangers' two goals had followed Toronto's game-opening tally by only 3:31. Alexei Ponikarovsky gave his team a short-lived 1-0 lead at 1:48 of the first, capitalizing on an early interference penalty to Jagr. Ponikarovsky took Mats Sundin's centering pass from the left corner and rifled a shot past Lundqvist for his 21st goal of the season
"I don't know what to say. It was just one of those games," said Sundin, the Maple Leafs' captain. "Obviously, we are disappointed right now with what happened. We have one day to get better tomorrow and then we have a huge game on Tuesday at home to put us right back where we want to be. We can't dwell too long on this loss. We have to get back and have a good workout with a positive mind."
Toronto's Devereaux made it 2-2 at the 16:35 mark of the opening period, when he took a shot from the right point that sailed around a screen set by Battaglia, who was directly in front of Lundqvist along the right post.
The Rangers had two power play opportunities in the opening period. Avery drew the first one when he got Tucker to go off for roughing at 11:54. Emotions between those two players later boiled over at the 14:33 mark, when Tucker and Avery squared off just inside the Toronto blue line and both went off for fighting, enabling Avery to later complete his "Gordie Howe hat trick."
"We were OK in the first period, but just (OK)," said Renney. "They scored right early and we were able to battle back right away and tie it up. Certainly from that you have the proper impression of our willingness to play and go after it. We just identified a couple of things that we might be able to exploit in the second period. The guys went out and played hard. They tried to keep the game simple and keep pushing pucks forward. We had to force a team that has played a lot in the last few days to dig down deep to try and beat us."