GREENBURGH, N.Y. - Bleary-eyed and sluggish, the New York Rangers shuffled into their training centre Tuesday for an off-ice workout after an exhausting - yet highly successful - European trip to open the NHL regular season.
The players and coach Tom Renney all sported a similar look of weariness during their first full day back in the U.S. They also shared smiles as they reflected on a pair of 2-1 wins over the Tampa Bay Lightning, that count in the standings, and an experience that bonded the team.
"Obviously it would be a little bit different if we didn't come out with the points, but it was a good time," forward Scott Gomez said.
The Rangers shook off the 1-5 pre-season mark they accumulated in a gruelling eight-day stretch before they left North America and rebounded with a stirring 4-3 comeback victory over Russia's Metallurg Magnitogorsk - the European champion - in Bern, Switzerland. They moved on to the Czech Republic and swept the Lightning in the two-game series in Prague.
After the second win on Sunday night, the Rangers flew home and enjoyed a full day off on Monday before returning to the rink Tuesday morning.
"It seemed that when we got to Prague our mission became a little bit more precise in terms of it being the NHL season," Renney said. "There was no squawking. The guys knew that they were going over there. This was a part of our camp. This was part of preparing for the NHL season, and the guys were really on tap."
You could hardly say that the one-day break upon returning home was refreshing, as evidenced by the tired faces that passed through the weight room and dressing area, but the focus was squarely on building off the trip and getting ready for Friday night's home opener against the Chicago Blackhawks.
The plan was to get the players into some physical activity on dry land Tuesday and out in the sunlight to get their bodies acclimated to the Eastern time zone. A regular practice was scheduled for Wednesday morning in preparation for the regular season that has only 80 games left.
"We'll be fine," new captain Chris Drury said. "They scheduled (the trip) very smartly and made sure we got our rest when we should have. We have a little break here, we'll have a couple of good practices. I'm sure the Garden will be rocking on Friday and we'll be ready."
New York already has four points in the bank, while other clubs are waiting to start the season.
"We'll just pay attention to our own game and just work hard and really pay attention to detail on both sides of the puck and let our leaders help pull as along here," Renney said. "Whatever anybody else is seeing of us or thinking of us, or whatever the perception might be, I think we realize that it's all on us to do this properly."
As important as the wins were on this trip, the getting-to-know everybody portion might turn out to be just as crucial.
The Rangers are vastly different than the team that exited in the second round of the playoffs for a second consecutive year in the spring. Recognizable faces such as former captain Jaromir Jagr, veteran Brendan Shanahan, and super-pest Sean Avery are gone, replaced by the likes of Markus Naslund, Nikolai Zherdev and defenceman Wade Redden.
Drury took over the captaincy Friday at a team dinner the night before the opener against the Lightning and has already seen the positive effects of heading across the ocean.
"We got a lot out of it besides two big wins and four points, just getting to know the guys more and more each and every day," Drury said. "Being on a plane for about 20 hours over the week, it gave us a chance to get to know teammates so it was great."
The turning point might have come in the third period of that exhibition game against Metallurg last Wednesday after the Rangers fell behind 3-0 with the Victoria Cup on the line.
It was clear to everyone following a reception in advance of the game that Metallurg of Russia's Continental Hockey League was taking it very seriously and had every intention of skating off with a win.
Drury cut the Rangers' deficit to 3-1 late in the second period, Dan Fritsche made it a one-goal game at 5:45 of the third, and Drury tied it with a little under 10 minutes left. Ryan Callahan completed the comeback by scoring with 20 seconds left.
"It felt like a very important regular-season game, bordering on the playoffs," Drury said. "We did not want to lose that game. We did not want to go into the regular season with a loss."
They didn't. And in turn, the Rangers came home with a pair of wins that could prove crucial when it's time to mete out who will be in the playoffs.
"Collectively we all agreed upon that these four points were just as important as points in February or March," Drury said. "That's why we went over there. The added bonus of coming together as we did ... everyone said that you have the chance to come together as a team and so on, but I've been at trips where that's been said and it hasn't happened.
"It seemed this time it was said and it happened right from the start."