When Mike Brown arrived in Toronto from Anaheim in the summer of 2010, it was safe to say his facial hair preceded him. The bruising winger joined the Leafs sporting an impressive Fu Manchu that helped him appear more rugged than even his 391 career penalty minutes would suggest.
Brown maintained the unique facial hair throughout the 2010-11 season, in which he recorded career highs in points (8) and assists (5) and endeared himself to fans for his relentless, physical style.
During the offseason, however, Brown knew it was time for a change of pace. The Maple Leafs had just watched the playoffs at home for the sixth-straight season, and once training camp for the 2011-12 season arrived, Brown was limited by injury.
"I was having a few injuries, so I wanted to change something up," Brown told NHL.com. "I just needed a change."
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Call it a coincidence, but as soon as Brown became clean-shaven, Toronto started winning.
The Leafs started the 2011-12 season on a tear, winning five of their first six, dropping only an overtime decision to the Colorado Avalanche.
Heading into Thursday's game against the New York Rangers at a renovated Madison Square Garden, the Leafs (5-2-1) are tops in the Northeast Division with 11 points.
Brown also appears to be on a tear, his two early assists putting him on pace for another career-high in points. Brown credits his offensive strides to increased ice time -- he's averaging just over 10 minutes a game so far -- as well as the organization's growing confidence in him. Back in February, Toronto rewarded Brown's steady aggression with a three-year contract extension worth $2.2 million.
"I've played for Burkie [GM Brian Burke] before, and I obviously like the way he handles himself, the way he treats everyone and conducts everything, so I was happy to be there," Brown said. "And obviously, I couldn't complain about the extension to be with an organization like that."
When asked what the Leafs must do to maintain momentum and emerge from their Stanley Cup Playoff slumber, Brown put a premium on early-season victories.
"You know, it's the games right now that you need to win to be in position for a playoff spot at the end of the year," Brown said. "I think right now it's just about getting those points and getting into that now, because by the end of the year every team is winning and if you're down a few points, it doesn't do you any good."
As something of an elder statesman in the Leafs' locker room -- Brown is only 26, but is one of the few Leafs with playoff experience -- the fifth-year player told NHL.com that Toronto's Stanley Cup aspirations hinge on consistency.
"Last year we had some really good spots and some really bad times," Brown said. "I think basically what we're trying to do this year is be more consistent."
Consistency has been Brown's calling card throughout his five seasons. The Michigan Wolverine product has been a solid third- or fourth-line winger for Vancouver, Anaheim and now Toronto, using his limited minutes to either maintain decorum -- he's averaged a plus-1 rating across the past two seasons -- or shake things up.
Perhaps best known for his big hits, Brown says his tough-guy mentality dates back to his days with the U.S. National Team Development Program.
"I've always been a gritty, strong, tough player," Brown said. "When I played for the U.S. team, I had a few fights, and as soon as I got to the minors in Winnipeg it was more of just playing that hard game, playing more physical.
"The toughness has always been there, it was just a matter of getting the game experience."
With "Movember" right around the corner, Brown plans to let his 'stache shine once again to raise awareness for prostate cancer.
After that, Brown says he is undecided on his next beard move. But it is clear that as long as the Leafs are still on a playoff pace, the stubble comes second.