UNIONDALE, N.Y. -- Pairing Marian Gaborik and Sean Avery on the same line may turn out to be the best decision New York Rangers coach John Tortorella makes all season.
In their first game playing together, Avery assisted on two of Gaborik’s three goals, including the eventual game winner with 5:25 remaining, as the Rangers beat the Islanders, 6-5, in a Thursday night thriller at Nassau Coliseum.
“I’ve watched Gaby play,” said Avery, who was inserted into the top line along with Gaborik and Erik Christensen prior to the game by Tortorella, who was desperate for someone to find chemistry with Gaborik, his team’s most potent offensive threat. “I know where he’s gonna be. He’s not really ever in the same spot. He just reads the play so well. He gets open. That’s the biggest thing. And he’s always in the right spot.”
Gaborik, who notched his second hat trick of the season and 12th of his career, was positioned in exactly the right place 25 seconds after Blake Comeau tied the game at 5-5. Stationed in front of the net, Gaborik got a rebound off a shot from Christensen and deflected it off the skate of an Islanders defenseman and into a gaping net to put his team out in front to stay.
“It was a huge win for us,” said Gaborik, who now has four goals in his past two games after being held scoreless in his previous five. “Sean created a lot of forechecking pressure on their D and we had a lot of chances in deep. Erik made nice plays and I think we were filling the lanes and getting chances.”
More importantly, they were making those chances count. And it was Avery who served as the catalyst -- almost like an NBA point guard -- feeding Gaborik and allowing him to make plays.
The most dazzling one came early in the third period after Gaborik had given the Rangers a 4-3 lead late in the second, ripping home a wrist shot on the power play. Just 3:31 in, Avery swooped in behind the net, gained possession of the puck and whipped a perfect pass onto Gaborik’s tape in the high slot. And as he’s done throughout his career, Gaborik fired it by Islanders goaltender Rick DiPietro.
“The expectations are there,” said Gaborik, who has potted eight goals on the season, well below last season’s team-leading total of 42. “I know that and I just need to continue to play strong.”
When you’re paid handsomely -- $7.5 million per season to be exact -- to put the puck in the net, of course the expectations are going to be there. But Gaborik, who missed 12 games after separating his shoulder, wasn’t producing when he returned to the lineup.
So Tortorella decided to take a chance and give Avery, the team’s vaunted agitator, an opportunity to play with Gaby. To say he took advantage of that opportunity would be an understatement.
“Our lines, I don’t think we’ve been very productive offensively with offensive zone pressure and having the puck. Some guys that were playing with Gaby weren’t playing that well,” Tortorella said. “I thought Sean played well two out of the last three games and so we gave him an opportunity today. And he certainly seized it tonight. That line was very good tonight.”
Christensen (one goal, one assist), Gaborik (one assist in addition to his three goals) and Avery (three assists) combined for nine points against the Islanders, looking more like a trio that had played together for years rather than just one game.
“We came out early and got a big goal in the first period [by Christensen] and we just stayed with it,” Avery said. “Gaby with three goals and a crusher. It was good. We just need to continue to carry the momentum into tomorrow night.”
The Rangers and Islanders will skate again Friday night at Madison Square Garden in the second game of a back-to-back home-and-home set.
And you can bet Christensen, Gaborik and Avery will be on the ice together a whole lot.
That much is certain for now.