NEW YORK, N.Y. - After seven games in three countries and about a month away from home, the New York Rangers were thrilled to return to the friendly confines of Madison Square Garden.
Friendly? Most definitely. Familiar? Not so much.
The Rangers will become the last of the NHL's 30 teams to play their home opener when they host the Toronto Maple Leafs on Thursday night. The reason they were away for so long was the first stage of a three-part renovation project to transform the Garden.
"I checked it out earlier this summer, so I had a little idea of where I was going," forward Brandon Dubinsky said. "Some guys got locked out and didn't know where they were going, but we'll get it figured out."
The so-called "World's Most Famous Arena" is getting a facelift. The enormous project won't be finished for two years, meaning the Rangers are in line for more long journeys when the arena shuts down the next two summers for more around-the-clock construction.
Instead of being shipped off to play home games on unfamiliar grounds—as the Yankees did at Shea Stadium in the 1970s when the old Yankee Stadium was renovated—the Rangers, and the Knicks (once the NBA lockout ends) will play around the work.
The Rangers got their first look at what has been done since they left in April, and the instant reviews were good. The dressing rooms are new—even for the visitors—as is the entire lower bowl of seats that are way more comfortable and a much darker shade than the familiar teal.
"It's awesome in here," Rangers captain Ryan Callahan said Wednesday after a rare practice at MSG. "There is so much more space, it's high-tech now, and I think it's a lot more fan-friendly, too—a little bit more access to us and things like that.
"We're excited to be back home."
They should be well received, too, when the refurbished arena welcomes a sold-out crowd on Thursday. The Rangers went 3-2-2 during the long trek, despite visiting tough places such as Vancouver. New York also had "road" games in Sweden against Los Angeles and Anaheim, so the Rangers won't have to venture to California during the season.
Nearly one quarter of their road games are behind them, and the Rangers will have to play only five games the rest of the season outside of the Eastern time zone. The Toronto game kicks off a six-game homestand, and that isn't even the longest of the season. New York will be home for a seven-game stretch in March as the playoff drive is really heating up.
"It feels different. Good different, though," goalie Henrik Lundqvist said. "Everybody is excited to be back home and getting ready for a lot of home games here coming up.
"The biggest part is just to come back home and play in front of our own fans. Add to that we have a new facility here. It's a big difference to be back here, and the preparation for us is going to be a lot better. The most important thing for us now is just to get comfortable here today and tomorrow and then get ready for six home games in a row. I'm excited about it."
After losing after regulation to Anaheim and Los Angeles to start the season in Sweden, the Rangers were beaten by the New York Islanders in their closest thing to a home game since last season's playoffs. But New York went 3-1 on an excursion to Western Canada, finishing the trip with a grinded-out 2-1 victory at Winnipeg on Monday.
Overall, the journey covered more than 32,000 kilometres.
"It was a lot of travelling. I think we've done OK," star forward Marian Gaborik said. "The results were there, although we still have to work on some things and improve some things. We're looking forward to some games at home. We really need to take advantage of home field."
No one could remember the last time the Rangers held an off-day practice at the Garden instead of at their suburban training centre, but the consensus was that it was years ago. The Maple Leafs took a spin on the ice after the Rangers on Wednesday, and both teams will hold morning pre-game skates there on Thursday, too.
Even those in the blue and white Maple Leafs sweaters were impressed by the changes.
"The locker room is definitely a lot better than it used to be, but I've always loved playing here," Toronto centre Tim Connolly said. "It's a great atmosphere in the building and it's a historic building.
"It's always been a little bit of a darker arena in the crowd, but it seems pretty similar as before."
The arena was unexpectedly available on Wednesday because the New York Knicks' pre-season game against the Washington Wizards was cancelled because of the NBA lockout. While not much could be gleaned from one practice in a mostly empty arena, the Rangers appeared happy to at least get a good look at their new-look home, figure out the routes on and off the ice, and settle in at their stalls.
It was hard to tell by glance whether the new dressing room was bigger than the old one, but gone were several odd alcoves that cut off moving space. The only obstacle remaining is an oversized Rangers logo that covers a big chunk of the centre of the room, and is off limits for feet.
Garbage pails and laundry bins guarded the perimeter, to some extent. Yells from players and team staff to "Keep Off" were more effectively directed at the many reporters and camera operators who broke that rule in the crowded room.
"It's a little big," Lundqvist said. "It's going to be tough on you guys."
Now that they are finally home, the Rangers will look to get comfortable with their surroundings as quickly as possible and try to get the offence going.
Garden fans will get their first look at playmaking centre Brad Richards, who was lured to New York with a lucrative free-agent deal this summer. Richards got off to a slow start with Gaborik on his line, and the pair will be counted on to pick things up now that the rough part of the schedule is over.
"I've been thinking about it for a while. It's taken a while to get here," Richards said of the opener. "The excitement of a new team, the first thing you want to do is play in the home building and in front of those fans. That hasn't been the case here, so I'm excited. I'll have some butterflies and I can't wait to get going."
The Rangers will still be without top defenceman Marc Staal, who is out indefinitely because of the effects of a concussion sustained last season, but they are expected to have defenceman Michael Sauer back in the lineup against the Leafs following a shoulder injury.
"Most definitely ready to go," Sauer said. "I've got clearance, so I'll be out there, for sure."
Forward Mike Rupp didn't practice because of a sore knee, but is expected to play Thursday.