"I had him for one week. It felt like a year." - Bruce Boudreau on his experience with Sean Avery.
You probably already know you don't like Sean Avery. What you might not know if just how much you're going to hate him by the end of this month.
Avery, who seems to revel in being the League's most hated player, is willing to indulge any pet peeve. He runs his mouth both on and off the ice, he makes life difficult for goaltenders, he dives (on a regular basis, no less), he gets in stick work after the whistle, he throws questionable hits, he declines to answer the bell when called out, instead opting to goad an opponent in to a penalty or, apparently, retaliate by squirting Gatorade on the opponent's bench.
Ostensibly the story of this series will be the Capitals high-powered offense against Henrik Lundqvist, and with good cause - Lundqvist is one of the league's most efficient goalies in both save percentage and goals against average, and possesses the ability to steal games, something his thirteen shutouts over the last two seasons attests to. But there's reason to think the Capitals can solve Lundqvist: this season Lundqvist's .882 save percentage and 3.57 goals against average against the Capitals are pretty pedestrian and the worst the netminder posted against any team he'd seen more than once, save for Montreal. In addition, Lundqvist's 11-12/2.57/.907 career playoff stat line isn't all that impressive, especially considering that it drops to 7-12/2.78/.901 outside of the team's 2007 series against Atlanta, a series that was dominated by Lundqvist's teammates more than the netminder himself.
It was against Atlanta that Avery, arguably his team's best player in the series, proved himself as a playoff performer. His five points (one goal) and 19 shots on goal undoubtedly helped, but Avery's biggest contribution was seen in the play Thrashers, not the Rangers. While the Rangers went about the business of playing hockey, the Thrashers grew increasingly preoccupied with Avery's antics. By the second period of game two Thrashers' star Ilya Kovalchuk (who would later fight Avery) was more interested in dealing with Avery than helping his team create offense, a preoccupation that played a part in his unimpressive production (one goal, one assist) in the series.
The Capitals may be better equipped to deal with Avery than most teams. After a win against the Rangers last season Boudreau explained his team's strategy against Avery, saying, "We told everybody to ignore him. He's very effective at what he does. There were a couple of times when he was yelling in between the glass. When everybody's staring straight out and not paying attention, what's the use of yelling? So he stopped doing it." The advantage of this strategy is that it's simple - just don't engage Avery and he loses his effectiveness. The disadvantage of this strategy, unfortunately, is that it's simple. Bruce Boudreau, for all his coaching acumen, is not the first person to realize that Avery's effectiveness is largely contingent on how opponent responds to him. Yet Avery still manages to get under the skin of opponents on a regular basis.
While it'd be nice to be able to say the Capitals should have no problem avoiding engaging Avery, it'd be too optimistic of an outlook. Too many Capitals have had the tendency to take bad retaliation and frustration penalties this season, and it's not a problem limited for just one or two guys. That plays into Avery's hands too because, for all the attention the Ovechkin/Avery match-up is getting, he'll be more than happy to get any Capitals player off his game. Even the more optimistic outlooks, like Boudreau's "Ovie doesn't doesn't do something silly. If you know Ovie, he just takes numbers, and the next time you touch the puck he's a runaway truck" carry the potential to create significant problems for the Caps.
The Capitals do have one thing clearly working their favor when it comes to dealing with Avery (and no, it's not Donald Brashear, who's more likely to play into Avery's hands than deter him from doing anything): the referees. Make no mistake about it - Sean Avery is a marked man in the eyes of officials for his tendency to run his mouth, style of play, and the frequency with which he makes the referee's job more difficult than it already is. Avery's reputation is fairly long-standing, but since his return to the Rangers' lineup the animosity directed his way by officials has come often and more blatently. In a late season game against the Devils Avery was given two minutes for being ragdolled by New Jersey's David Clarkson, and there are those who think the two minutes given to Avery for this altercation with Boston's Tim Thomas was based on part on his reputation since officials appeared not to see the initial contact of Avery's stick on Thomas' helmet. The bottom line is that Avery's reputation is now such that in any altercation between Avery and another player, the guy who isn't Avery's going to the benefit of the doubt every time.
What that means for the Capitals is that they'll be able to get a little more frustrated than they should with Avery and still be able to get away with it which is, of course, good news. As long as the Caps don't allow themselves to become completely consumed with Avery they be able to prevent him from becoming a major factor in the series. But then, that too is something easier said than done.