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Players happy to finally start regular season

by Dan Rosen
PRAGUE, Czech Republic – The arena is foreign. The ice is smaller than the regular NHL surface. The city is different and attractive, allowing the players to become tourists when they're not at work, which is, of course, rare back home.

The stakes, though, don't change. For the first time since May for the New York Rangers and early April for the Tampa Bay Lightning, the goals and saves, penalties and power plays will matter this weekend.

The Bridgestone NHL Premiere Prague (Saturday noon EST, NHLN, CBC, RDS; Sunday noon EST, VERSUS, RDS) is a highly anticipated and heavily marketed global event for the National Hockey League. Its success is measured by the attention it gets, the buzz it creates, and the money it generates.

For the players and coaches, though, the success of the NHL Premiere Series is measured in simple math – two points for a win. The continent doesn't matter.

"Tomorrow is the day," Tampa Bay forward Martin St. Louis said. "It's the day we have been waiting for and working for. This is a good test for us. We all want to see what we're made of in real competition."

The Rangers and the Lightning both are enigmas now, teams that each infused their locker rooms with new blood and leadership. The Bolts even have new owners and coaches, making their overhaul complete.

No matter how much speculation you want to make, nobody knows what to expect from either team. And other than the novelty of opening the season in Prague, that's what makes this weekend so interesting for everyone involved, fans included.

"You want to make a good first impression," said Lightning forward Ryan Malone, one of the many new faces in the team's dressing room this season. "We're going to establish ourselves as a hard-working team that will be tough to play against. That's what we want our reputation to be. Saying that is the easy part. Now we have to go out there and do it."

From Tampa Bay's perspective, just about everything is new and different, save for Vincent Lecavalier and St. Louis playing together again with Vaclav Prospal.

Oren Koules and Len Barrie are the new co-owners. Barry Melrose will coach his first game since 1995. Mike Smith may start a season as a No. 1 goalie for the first time in his career. Olaf Kolzig definitely is starting the season, his first outside Washington, in a competition for playing time for the first time in more than a decade.

Andrej Meszaros, a former young and unpolished defenseman for the Ottawa Senators, is now a No. 1 blueliner. Top draft pick Steven Stamkos no longer is just a prospect, but a hyped-up rookie and second-line center.

"Tomorrow is the day. It's the day we have been waiting for and working for. This is a good test for us. We all want to see what we're made of in real competition."Martin St. Louis

Malone, Radim Vrbata, Gary Roberts, Adam Hall, Mark Recchi and Matthew Carle are more of the new players that need to contribute for the Lightning to forget about last season's last-place finish.

"We're all excited about this new look from the ownership down," said Stamkos. "We had a pretty impressive preseason. We went 5-1, but the true test is the regular season. We'll see after this weekend's games if we're up to the task."

The Rangers' overhaul wasn't as severe as Tampa Bay's. The coaches and management are the same, but inside the dressing room they're talking about new leadership, new veteran power and a growth spurt of sorts.

Jaromir Jagr, Brendan Shanahan and Martin Straka are gone. The Rangers are in a new era and the team now belongs to Chris Drury and Scott Gomez.

Markus Naslund and Nikolai Zherdev have come from the Western Conference to play in the Rangers' top six forwards. Defenseman Wade Redden has shifted from Ottawa to New York to play with Michal Rozsival.

Rookie center Lauri Korpikoski appears ready to make his regular-season debut. Dan Fritsche, Patrick Rissmiller, Aaron Voros and Dmitri Kalinin are new as well. And last year's rookie class of Marc Staal, Brandon Dubinsky, Nigel Dawes and Ryan Callahan has grown up.

"Preseason is good in its own way, but this is what we play for and it starts tomorrow," Naslund said. "We have to play 82 games to get to where we want to be and then it starts over again."

For the players in both locker rooms inside the O2 Arena, the arrival of the regular season signifies a re-birth. Considering they have spent months preparing their bodies for the grind while trying to either forget what happened last season, opening night is one of the most anticipated events on the calendar.

That it's in Prague instead of New York, Tampa Bay or any North American city matters little at this point. Everything seems so new and different, but come Saturday at 6 p.m. Prague time (noon EST), life becomes normal again for these hockey players.

"When I wake up in the morning and look at my itinerary for the day I will understand the circumstances that I'm in," Dubinsky said. "I'll also have that relief. The summer is such a tough time for a hockey player. …You're constantly worrying that you're ready to go for the next season. I'm finally there and now I can just focus on hockey, something I have done for my entire life."

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