- The Washington Times - Wednesday, April 22, 2009

NEW YORK

When he isn’t playing hockey, which is often, Rangers roustabout Sean Avery likes to rustle the whiskers of opponents. Perhaps you saw him plying his trade in the second period of Game 3 on Monday night, taking a poke at the Capitals’ John Erskine for the sheer provocation of it.

Erskine, who’s well above Avery’s weight class at 216 pounds, could have responded in kind - and few would have blamed him. But he elected instead to turn the other cheek and put his team, already down 2-0 in the series, on the power play.

“It takes a lot of courage” to do that, fellow defenseman Shaone Morrisonn said after Tuesday’s workout at Madison Square Garden - that is, to refrain from retaliating and “play for the team.” Especially, it might be noted, when the volatile Avery could just as easily sock you in the other cheek.

Aw, Bruce Boudreau said, “With a glove on, [a shot like that] hurts, but it doesn’t hurt that much.” In the playoffs you have to make those sacrifices if you want to win. And on this occasion, the Caps did, powering past the home team 4-0 to put themselves back in the series.

As for Mr. Avery, it was not a game for the highlight reel. In fact, he made so many trips to the penalty box - four in all - that you wondered why the Rangers didn’t put a Barcalounger in there for him.

To recap, he got two minutes for roughing Erskine, two minutes later in the second period for high-sticking, two minutes still later in the period for interfering with Capitals goalie Simeon Varlamov and two minutes near the end of the game for taking another stab at Varlamov - with a meaningless 10-minute misconduct tacked on for, well, Being Sean Avery.

Only the last of the four resulted in a Caps goal, but three of them were damaging in another way: They came when the Rangers had the man advantage and cost them more than three minutes of power-play time.

“Sometimes his aggression gets the best of him,” Brooks Laich said. “But for every penalty he gets, he draws one [from the opposition].”

Not on this night.

Avery is what is known in hockey as an instigator. This is different from the role of, say, the Capitals’ Donald Brashear. Brashear is an enforcer, a protector of the Marquee Guys, a rearranger of facial features (kind of like Picasso was a rearranger of facial features). Avery’s behavior could best be described as colicky - continually and seemingly uncontrollably irritable.

Caps icon Dale Hunter was a little like Avery. I say “a little” because Dale did it with more panache, with more subtlety. Often, you didn’t even know he was out there… until an adversary suddenly had blood running from one of his ears.

Avery, on the other hand, likes the stage, likes to engage the crowd, likes to talk. Boy, does he ever like to talk. As the Capitals’ Milan Jurcina put it, “He knows what to say to get players upset, to get them feeling uncomfortable.”

Earlier this season, during his brief stint as a professional pest for the Stars, Avery got in trouble by making some churlish comments about former girlfriends Elisha Cuthbert and Rachel Hunter, both of whom are now dating other hockey players. NHL commissioner Gary Bettman suspended him indefinitely, telling him, in effect, “We’ll put up with your crimes and misdemeanors on the ice, but don’t you dare speak disparagingly of Hollywood starlets or swimsuit models.”

Dallas, meanwhile, took the rare step of dumping Avery even though it had just signed him to a four-year, $14.5 million deal. He had no one to antagonize for more than three months - until his previous employer, the on-the-bubble Rangers, gave him another chance. The left winger had been on his best behavior until the other night, accumulating a mere 36 penalty minutes in 20 games. For a player who has led the league in that department not once but twice, it was a stunning display of restraint, almost Gandhi-esque.

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