NEW YORK - Nothing like a Broadway debut to elevate the excitement of a mid-week hockey game.
For the opening act at Madison Square Garden Thursday night, we have the Rangers playing their first home contest of the season at the renovated and self-proclaimed “most famous arena on earth.”
Also under the lights will be the Big Apple opening for Brad Richards, the marquee acquisition of this summer’s free agency sweeps but a player who has struggled at times early in his Rangers tenure.
And not to be outdone, the visiting Toronto Maple Leafs will trot out the long-awaited start of centre Tim Connolly, the consolation prize for not landing Richards.
It’s quite an environment for Connolly to begin his career as a Leaf, the first meeting of the season between two teams that it wouldn’t be a stretch to see locked in a battle for an Eastern Conference playoff spot months from now.
While coach Ron Wilson wouldn’t make it official, Connolly skated a full 90-minute practice at the Garden Thursday afternoon between wingers Joffrey Lupul and Phil Kessel and is anxious to begin the work he was brought here to do.
“They are really clicking right now and playing extremely well together,” Connolly said of Kessel and Lupul. “I’m just going to try to stay out of their way. Get them the puck as much as possible and just try do all the little things right.
“I just want to keep up to the speed out there. Those guys have been flying. I’m here to win and do whatever I can to help these guys win.”
It’s probably fairest to keep early expectations low for Connolly given he hasn’t played since early in the pre-season when he injured his shoulder in practice. He’ll start on that sizzling top line, but at the first sign of “huffing and puffing,” Wilson said he will spot other centres up there to give him a break for a shift or two.
Wilson and general manager Brian Burke will be busy men pre-game as they figure out how to get the roster down to size. Tyler Bozak, who has missed the past two games with a foot injury, is also slated to return while James Reimer faced a barrage of pucks at practice and is ready to return from the minor injury that kept him out of Monday’s game in Philly.
Based on Wednesday’s practice, Nazem Kadri would appear to be one of the odd men out with a stint with the AHL Marlies likely in his future.
“I’m going to get my chance eventually,” Kadri said on Wednesday. “I’m going to keep working hard like I always do.”
As for Connolly, the idea that he may somehow ruin the mojo of NHL leading scorer Kessel (nine goals, six assists in eight games) is somewhat absurd. Wilson has shuffled a steady stream of centres on the line throughout the first eight games but Connolly’s skill level will only provide an added dimension.
“Those guys have taken care of business regardless of who their centre man is,” Wilson said. “But (Connolly) is very smart in the offensive zone, sees the ice and he has a great shot too. Not only can he pass, but he’s a scoring threat too.
“I think over time, he will blend in easily with those two guys.”
The “over time” comment is telling given that it will be unrealistic to expect too much out of Connolly early. Given that he hasn’t had much time to work on the special team units, those assignments may be limited in the first few games.
“The toughest part (is adjusting to game action), everything is moving that much quicker, the play happens faster,” Connolly said. “I’m going to try to go out and keep my shifts as short as I can to start and from there try to play with some confidence.”
Wilson said he will confer with Burke and v-p of hockey operations, Dave Nonis, on Thursday before final decisions are made on scratches and demotions, but the forward lineup looked set on Wednesday. Clarke MacArthur, Nikolai Kulemin and Mikhail Grabovski were also together, as usual, while Bozak was alongside Matthew Lombardi and Matt Frattin. That left David Steckel, Mike Brown and Philippe Dupuis as the fourth unit.
Not to overplay a single road game in October, but a victory for the Leafs would be huge here. The Rangers survived their seven-game road trip to start the season (while the Garden was being finished) with a 3-2-2 record and will play to a fired-up crowd.
The Leafs could salvage a 2-2 record on their four-game road trip and cement a solid 6-2-1 start against a competitive conference rival.
“It might be early, but they’re big points,” captain Dion Phaneuf said. “We win tomorrow and it’s a .500 trip.”