TARRYTOWN - As Chris Kreider searched for a way to epitomize the 2018-19 New York Rangers, one particular anecdote came to mind.
It was Feb. 26, the day after the trade deadline. Brendan Lemieux, who had been acquired from Winnipeg in exchange for Kevin Hayes, had just completed his first practice as a Ranger.
"We had a pretty run of the mill practice, and after the practice, he was like, 'Oh my God, you guys practice so hard,'" Kreider said on Sunday during the team's season-ending media availability at the Rangers Training Center. "And we were like, 'Really? That was just a normal practice for us.'"
All season long, first-year head coach David Quinn has preached to his team the need to be "fast, physical and relentless." It quickly became the club's unofficial mantra. Judging by Lemieux's first impression of his new team - and coupled with the way the Rangers practiced, played and treated every day of the season, seemingly from Day 1 - the message certainly permeated.
"The culture's been instilled," Kreider said. "The work ethic is second nature at this point. I think that's the most important thing going forward. I think when you have that, everything kind of builds out of that."
The Rangers did not finish the 2018-19 campaign where they wanted to. They made no secret of that on Sunday. As Mika Zibanejad put it, he was forced to conduct his season-ending media availability far earlier than he would have liked.
There are doubtlessly improvements to be made over the course of the offseason. But on Sunday, each and every player alluded to the work ethic this team built throughout the course of this campaign, and when they report back for training camp in about five months, they fully expect to pick up right where they left off.
"We've got a group that really works hard, and we've got the foundation, I think, for what can make us successful in the future," said first-year Ranger Ryan Strome. "It was exciting for me to be a part of it and see [it from] some older guys that I've looked up to in the NHL for a long time, and [from] a good mix of young guys that I think remind me of myself a couple years ago.
"I'm optimistic about this group; we work really hard. I really just wish we could fast-forward the summer here and hit training camp running."
Strome is certainly not alone in his optimism. Though the post-trade deadline portion of the season was challenging, grueling and in some ways disappointing for this group, there was a near-constant sense of optimism because of the way the team competed, regardless of circumstance.
There were nights when the Rangers found themselves down by three goals, when they fought back for a victory. There were games when they were leading, allowed the other team to creep back in and still managed to dig deep and claw back ahead. There were practice days in the midst of three games in four nights, or five games in seven nights, where the compete level was the same was it was back in October.
All of that is emblematic of the way this team approached each day, not only at the beginning of the season but at the end. The hard work was always there, a constant amidst a season that was, at times, quite turbulent.
Saturday's season finale in Pittsburgh was a perfect microcosm of the way this team has played all season. The Rangers fell behind early in the first. They fought back with an unassisted breakaway tally from defenseman-turned-forward Brendan Smith. They fell behind again early in the third, only to tie it and then take their first lead of the game at 13:50 with a shorthanded strike. Even after the Penguins forced overtime by notching the equalizer with just three minutes left in regulation, the Blueshirts fought back and spoiled Pittsburgh's home finale, courtesy of Strome's 19th goal of the season.
"Ending the year on that note, and some of the big [efforts] against pretty good teams that we had down the stretch, playoff teams - the way we played against Tampa, the way we played against Toronto up in Toronto, Boston until that third period, and obviously Pittsburgh to end the year - those young guys should have a lot of confidence," Kreider said. "They were playing against some of the best players in the world on a nightly basis and doing a really good job."
The effort? A great sign. The expectation? It will still be there when the 2019-20 campaign begins.
"I think it just shows with the close games the way the effort was there every night, and the way we battled and never gave up, no matter what the score was," Zibanejad said. "I think moving forward, that's what we want to have as a base as well. Add a few more things and get better in some areas, and I think it's a good way to go about it."
Many of the Rangers pointed to Quinn's approach, in his first year as an NHL head coach, as the impetus behind the team's no-quit attitude.
"Every practice, you see everyone working really hard, and it translated into games," said rookie center Brett Howden. "That comes right from our coaching staff. That's all they demand of us, is working our hardest, and I think you can see the way that we practice - like I said, it really translated over to our games. That's one thing about our team, is we never gave up, and we're always putting our best foot forward."
That was a sentiment echoed by General Manager Jeff Gorton, who hired Quinn away from Boston University last summer.
"I think early on, you could see he was going to hold players accountable," Gorton said. "He never backed off over a long course of a season when we had some ups and downs and some tough stretches. The accountability was always there. He's steadfast in how he wants his team to play."
The pride this team takes in its approach and in its attitude is no coincidence. It's also the reason why nobody in the room accepted hard work as a consolation prize for the fact that their season ended far earlier than preferred.
And that is exactly why there was so much hope, particularly on Sunday, that that pride - coupled with some offseason adjustments - can combine to produce a recipe for success in October.
"We come to the rink and everyone works really hard," Strome said. "You look at our last practice, we obviously were out of [the playoffs], but we came to work and we had a good workday. That's just the character of our team.
"We have fun, we have a lot of good personalities in here - a lot of great young guys and older guys - and it's a great mix. It'll be fun to see what happens here in the summer and come to training camp next year ready to go."