The Boogie Man and the Bad Boys of the East
Friday night. Leafs versus Rangers. Original Six. Madison Square Garden.
Now I ask you: Does it get any better than this?
The Leafs, looking for a fourth consecutive win to start the season – a feat last accomplished in 1993 – will be venturing into a madhouse this evening.
MSG home openers are always freighted with runaway emotion. Tonight's game also marks the team's 85th anniversary. So even before the puck drops, the legendary building will crackle with enough energy to power a nuclear reactor.
Captain Chris Drury returns to the line-up after missing the first two games with a broken index finger. Even more significant for many Ranger fans: Derek "The Boogie Man" Boogaard will make his home debut as the newest sheriff in The Big Apple.
After spending five seasons in Minnesota, where he racked up 2 goals and 544 penalty minutes, the skyscraper-sized destroyer of jaws and orbital bones signed with the Rangers this summer.
As coach John Tortorella recently told the New York Daily News: "We all know what his biggest strength is. It's still in our game. Guys feel more comfortable when a guy like that is around."
And at 6-foot-7, 265 pounds, The Boogie Man is always around. Never mind the No. 94 on his back – this guy should have his own area code.
The Eastern Conference was already a menacing, bruising place before Boogaard's arrival. Last season, players in the East accounted for 8 of the Top 10 spots in total penalty minutes and all of the Top 5 spots for majors.
Boogaard may not drop the gloves as often as he once did (the 105 minutes he spent in the sin box last year ranked 45 in the league). And his ice time may seem relatively inconsequential (he's played 7:37 minutes over 11 shifts in two games this season).
But make no mistake: His hulking presence adds a new dimension to the Conference that other teams do not take lightly.
During several conversations with Brian Burke this summer, he must have mentioned Boogaard four different times. The Bruins, meanwhile, recently inked a one-year deal with Brian McGrattan, despite already having a noted pugilist by the name of Shawn Thornton.
Or consider this: Less than 24 hours after Boogaard signed his $6.5 million contract with the Rangers, their biggest rival, the Islanders, signed Zenon Konopka as an unrestricted free agent.
Konopka, as you may recall, led the league in penalties last year.
What does all of this mean for tonight?
Well, already there is great anticipation for a main event between The Boogie Man and Colton Orr, who played four seasons as a Blueshirt and was a fan favourite. But that's assuming Orr is not too woozy from the devastating roundhouse right he took Wednesday night in Pittsburgh, courtesy of Deryk Engelland. (That was a frightening blow. Watching it in slow-motion, I was reminded of another time a beloved and usually unbeatable Leafs’ enforcer was rocked into next week.)
If the Orr-Boogaard fight is postponed, there could be an undercard match between Mike Brown and Brandon Prust. And if either team runs up the score, let's not underestimate the crap-disturbing presence of Sean Avery, a man who is unlikely to receive a Christmas card from Dion Phaneuf even if they both live to be 200.
Of course, the fact we're even talking about all of this is somewhat ironic.
Despite the clarion call for "pugnacity, testosterone, truculence and belligerence," when you analyze the Leafs strong start, fighting has been the least of it. In fact, of the team's four scraps, an objective observer would have to give three of those decisions to enemy opponents.
So the Leafs are 3-0 in the win-loss department. And they are 1-3 on the fight card.
Is it possible the Leafs do not have to throw as many punches as they seem to believe? Is it possible their real toughness – forechecking along the boards, clearing the front of their net, heat-seeking hits in open ice – will have nothing to do with left uppercuts and right crosses? Is it possible the fights, when they happen, will only serve to interrupt the momentum created by the biggest surprise this season, which is team speed?
There's no question the Leafs are bigger, meaner and tougher than before. The same holds true for the conference they inhabit. So the real question becomes a philosophical one: When a team is playing so well, does fighting just get in the way?
PHOTO: BRUCE BENNETT/GETTY IMAGES