PITTSBURGH - Stars do not lack in this NHL playoff series.
Sidney Crosby, Evgeni Malkin, Marian Hossa, Jordan Staal and Sergei Gonchar of the Pittsburgh Penguins against Chris Drury, Scott Gomez, Jaromir Jagr, Brendan Shanahan and Henrik Lundqvist of the New York Rangers, just to name a few.
And yet, on the eve of what should be a dynamite Eastern Conference semifinal showdown, one player dominated the talk. You guessed it, Sean Avery.
The Rangers bad boy drove the New Jersey Devils up the wall in the first round, particularly star goalie Martin Brodeur, and the Penguins insist they won't let that happen to them once the puck drops Friday night for Game 1.
"He was centre stage because that's how the Devils made him," Penguins tough guy Georges Laraque said Thursday after practice. "But if you don't pay attention to him, it's a non-issue. Our team is not the type of team that takes offence to anything done verbally. We speak louder with action. He can say whatever he wants, but we have a goal and a mission and one guy is not going to take the focus off everyone on the team."
Veteran Pittsburgh winger Gary Roberts believes the media care more about Avery and the players in his dressing room.
"I look at their lineup and I look at about eight guys down before I start worrying about Sean Avery," said Roberts. "You look at Gomez, Jagr, Drury, Straka, Shanahan - just go down the list. They've got a heck of a hockey club. That's what we're focused on."
New Jersey thought that as well. But then the puck dropped. Avery's antics drove Brodeur to not even shake hands with the Rangers agitator after the series was over, almost unheard of in hockey circles. But that's how much Avery got to Brodeur.
"The last series against the Devils, that's all they did, that's all they talked about," said Laraque. "They talked so much about what he did in front of Brodeur that it's almost like they forgot they had a game to play. Us, we're not like that."
Easier said than done. Avery has brought the pest role to a new level. His on-ice barbs seem to know no boundaries.
"Honestly, I've never seen anybody act like (Avery) has," said Roberts, who called Avery an "idiot" last week after the Ranger player's Game 3 antics with Brodeur.
Avery waived his stick blade in front of Brodeur's face and wouldn't stop, about as odd a scene as one will see in a hockey game. The NHL took the rare step of sending out a statement the next day warning that the next time it happens it would be a penalty.
"He takes pride in doing that kind of job," said Pittsburgh goalie Marc-Andre Fleury, who expects to get a face full of Avery. "That's alright. I just know there are some rules that will make sure he won't do too many stupid things. But we'll see what he does."
Avery can also play. He had three goals and two assists in the five-game series win over the Devils. He's got touch around the net and he's a physical beast in the corners.
But somehow the antics more often than not overshadow his skills. When Brodeur refused to shake hands with Avery last Friday night, some were ready to make the case that Brodeur was in the wrong and not Avery. But then the Rangers winger eliminated any possible sympathy in a post-game interview with MSG.
"Everyone talks about how classy or un-classy I am and fatso there just forgot to shake my hand I guess," Avery told the Rangers TV network.
The "fatso" comment resonated around the hockey world. How could Avery say that about a future Hall of Famer?
"I think we're all kind of in shock," said Roberts. "And if we're in shock, I can't imagine how his own teammates felt."
Laraque, then an Edmonton Oiler, had a celebrated run-in with Avery, then a Los Angeles King, during a game in October 2005. Laraque challenged Avery to a fight and not only did Avery decline, Laraque claimed he called him "a monkey." Avery steadfastly denied making the racial slur. The matter was never resolved, the league unable to find any evidence to suspend Avery. And Laraque hasn't sought revenge on the ice.
"He's protected by the league," said Laraque. "Getting a 20- or 25-game suspension on him, he would have had the last laugh. So there was nothing I could do."
The Penguins do have their own agitator in Jarkko Ruutu. Just don't dare compare the two.
"I think if you look at the stuff he's said and done, I don't think anyone else does it," said Ruutu. "That says a lot. ..
"I've got my tricks that I can use if they need to be used. A lot of times it's smart to be quiet until you have to do something, or say something. We'll see how it goes."
When it was pointed out by a reporter that another difference was the fact Avery got into Vanity Fair this season and Ruutu did not, the Finn didn't flinch.
"Those things are for girls," said Ruutu.
Drop the puck already.