There were more construction workers than hockey players in Madison Square Garden on Wednesday, as crews frantically tried to put the final touches on Stage 1 of a dramatic overhaul of the famed Manhattan arena.
And while members of the New York Rangers were having trouble finding their way around their new digs, the Toronto Maple Leafs got a glimpse of just how down to the deadline the renovations have been.
“They were still pulling wires when we came in,” captain Dion Phaneuf said, incredulously.
Strangely enough, all of that work – which began the day after New York was eliminated from the playoffs in April – has added a little extra drama to Thursday’s matchup between these two original six teams.
Three weeks into the season, the Rangers were finally skating in their own building for the first time at Wednesday’s practice, and their meeting with the Leafs will be the last of 30 home-openers around the league.
The buzz for the game is noticeable in the city, as with the NBA lockout and a revamped roster, there’s even more focus on MSG’s lone active tenant.
A loud place to play for even routine regular-season games, the 43-year-old barn should come close to having its roof blown off when the puck is finally dropped.
“We’re expecting a lively, loud building,” Phaneuf said. “Home-opener, new building. It’s an exciting game to play in. There’s going to be lots of atmosphere. We’re expecting a big effort from them.”
“We love coming in here today, we love what we see as far as the transformation that has gone on, but you need to win,” Rangers coach John Tortorella said. “That’s what makes the building good: winning in it. That’s our main focus.”
New York comes into the game – its fifth in a row against a Canadian opponent – with a 3-2-2 record that has been built almost exclusively on terrific goaltending from Henrik Lundqvist, who has allowed only 11 goals in six starts.
Scoring has been a huge issue, even with stud free-agent signing Brad Richards in the mix, as the Rangers’ 14 red lights as a group are only five more than Leafs sniper Phil Kessel has hit all on his own.
Injuries to the blueline – and especially assistant captain Marc Staal, who has yet to play due to a concussion – have compounded matters, although youngster Michael Sauer declared himself fit to play Wednesday after missing five games with a shoulder injury.
With Lundqvist currently as unbeatable as he is and this being the long-awaited Broadway debut for Richards, the Rangers are likely going to be a handful as they try to win over their raucous crowd early on.
Several Leafs talked about weathering the early pressure and playing a smart, simple road game, something that will be a must if they want to finally beat a team that’s currently sporting a winning record.
(Entering the NHL schedule Wednesday, Toronto’s five wins had come against four teams with a combined 9-19-4 record, while the three teams that beat them – Colorado, Boston and Philadelphia – were 14-9-1.) The best news for the Leafs is that the franchise’s own off-season renovations to the roster will finally get a test run Thursday, with centre Tim Connolly slated to play his first game of the season on the top line and starting netminder James Reimer expected to start in goal to end a four-game road swing.
Leafs coach Ron Wilson said he isn’t hesitating in giving Connolly the big assignment despite the fact Kessel and Joffrey Lupul have been on fire playing mainly with Tyler Bozak between them.
“In the back of his mind, he knows we played pretty well without him,” Wilson said. “He wants to make sure he’s not jinxing the team. That’s the way players think: ‘Oh jeez, I don’t want to be the guy that goofs up a good thing.’”
“They’re really clicking right now,” Connolly said of his linemates. “I’m just going to try and stay out of their way. Just give them the puck as much as possible.”
LEAFS’ PROJECTED LINEUP
Lupul – Connolly – Kessel
MacArthur – Grabovski – Kulemin
Lombardi – Bozak – Frattin
Steckel – Dupuis – Brown
Gunnarsson – Phaneuf
Gardiner – Schenn
Liles – Komisarek
RANGERS’ PROJECTED LINEUP
Fedotenko – Richards – Gaborik
Dubinsky – Stepan – Callahan
Wolski – Boyle – Prust
Newbury – Anisimov – Christensen
Girardi – McDonagh
Eminger – Sauer
Erixon – Del Zotto