New York Rangers coach John Tortorella insists he hasn't been holding back Sean Avery. The noted agitator didn't hold anything back in his last contest.
Avery will try to build on a career-best performance Thursday night when the Rangers visit the Atlanta Thrashers, losers of nine in a row.
Avery, who was waived by Dallas following a league-imposed suspension for crude comments about his former girlfriends dating other NHL players, rejoined the Rangers (21-17-5) in March. The left wing had been a fan favorite in New York for frustrating and jawing with opponents during the 2007-08 season, when he had 15 goals and 18 assists to help the club reach the Eastern Conference semifinals.
A two-time league penalty minutes leader, Avery often hasn't shown the same edge this season, but Tortorella denied trying to inhibit his play.
"There has been no leash or handcuffs on Sean Avery," Tortorella said. "We have really tried to push him the past couple of months in trying to get his game back and to play this way. I want Sean Avery on edge … when he crosses the line, it is my job to try to bring him back."
Avery looked like his old self against the Stars on Wednesday, as he had one goal and a career-high four points to lead New York to a 5-2 home victory. Avery also had 12 penalty minutes -- 10 coming on a misconduct for hitting Dallas' Jere Lehtinen after a second-period goal by Ales Kotalik.
He had numerous run-ins with other former teammates, including Stars goaltender Marty Turco, who called Avery a "delinquent" after the game.
"It was the way that Sean Avery needs to play," said Avery, who leads the Rangers with 82 penalty minutes and snapped a 19-game goal drought. "I've been thinking about it a lot. That's just the way it has to happen for me to be effective. I've got to stay consistent."
Seeking a fifth consecutive playoff berth, the Rangers are 7-1-2 in their last 10 games. They're currently seventh in the East, one point back of sixth-place Ottawa.
New York is also now getting production from Kotalik, who has goals in consecutive games after failing to find the net in his previous 21. The right wing has eight goals and 14 assists on the season.
The Rangers have dropped four in a row to Atlanta (18-18-6), including two meetings this season.
However, the Thrashers have dropped nine in a row since beating Dallas 6-5 on Dec. 17. They concluded an 0-5-2 road trip Tuesday with a 5-2 loss at Pittsburgh.
Atlanta, trying to avoid its first 10-game slide since Feb. 25-March 16, 2000, appears to be getting desperate.
"We've lost nine in a row, and we've got to find a way to win. We have to find it right away," said Ondrej Pavelec, who made 32 saves Tuesday. "There's no time."
Ilya Kovalchuk has been a bright spot, accumulating six goals and six assists during the losing streak. The left wing was held without a point by the Penguins, but has 14 goals and 15 assists in 28 games against the Rangers, including two goals and five assists in the last three.
Kovalchuk's 25 goals on the season rank him among the league leaders along with New York's Marian Gaborik, who has 28.