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The Verdict After 24 Hours in the Bubble: Just Like a Regular Road Trip

by Jess Isner

After 24 hours in their hub city of Toronto, one overarching truth emerged among the Rangers:

It doesn't feel a whole lot different than a regular road trip.

"We had practice this morning, have a meeting tonight, and we're having dinner," said Head Coach David Quinn following his team's first practice in their new home away from home. "I know everybody's talking about the bubble and how difficult it might be, but I really don't think a lot is going to be different from what we normally do on the road."

On second thought, though, he did mention one key difference.

"There's a golf simulator in our lounge," he said with a smile. "So our guys are excited about that."

The Rangers touched down in the bubble late Sunday afternoon after one final practice back home in New York. They settled into their accommodations at the Fairmont. On Monday, they woke up and took a shuttle to practice at the nearby Ford Performance Center. They completed their media availability, had lunch, and returned to the hotel.

All things considered, business as usual. 

"It's very similar to what we do on the road anyway, so far," Quinn said. "So far, so good, but check back with me in the next few days."

For most players, this feels like a regular road trip. For Ryan Strome and Phil Di Giuseppe, who are both from Toronto, the experience feels slightly strange. Normally, coming to Toronto to play the Maple Leafs means time at home with family and friends.

This time, that obviously isn't the case.

"It's definitely a little weird," Di Giuseppe said. "It doesn't feel exactly like I'm home; it's like I'm visiting. But it's nice to be back. If there's any place to be, it's nice to be back where you're from."

Of all the cities that could have been chosen as hubs, there's a consensus that Toronto was a good one, if only because of the abundant sheets of ice and bona fide hockey facilities available to 12 different teams.

"Whatever team hosted would have done a good job, but I think with Toronto, the access to the rinks and the facilities has been pretty good," Strome said.

For Strome, who became a first-time dad in May, it's also nice to be close to home, even if he can't go there.

"I think just personally, just with a new daughter, there's a little bit of peace of mind," he said. "God forbid, knock on wood, if anything ever happened, I think it's just nice to be close to home - 15 minutes away. It's a nice feeling.

"The time off has been nice to be home. To have your child born is pretty special, so that was an amazing experience. At the same time, I think as much as it [stinks] not being around every day, thank God for FaceTime and pictures and stuff. We're able to be pretty connected, more than ever before, so that's a positive."

Being able to "play dad" for the last two months, Strome said, has been incredible. But now, as the page turns and Phase 4 begins for the Rangers and the 23 other teams taking part in the NHL's Return to Play, the focus is one one thing: hockey.

Playoff opportunities don't come around every day. He knows that as well as anyone.

"At the end of the day, our careers are so short, and this is one of the messages I had for a few of the young guys: I haven't played in the playoffs in three years, and it's felt like 10 years," he said. "These opportunities don't come around too often, so no matter how unique the circumstances or how much your personal life may take a hit, it's important to just embrace the experience. It's a privilege to play in the playoffs in this league. It's a hard thing to do, and I think you never want to let an opportunity pass you by."

The teams partaking in Phase 4 are fortunate to be able to focus on hockey, and little else, because of the environment that's been created for them by the League. There's certainly a sense of safety and security due to the bubble environment and the protocols that accompany it, and that comfort is well worth the price of being required to stay within its confines.

"I think they've done an incredible job of making people feel like we can pull this off and we can do it in a safe environment," Quinn said. "At the end of the day, that's what this is all about. Because of that, guys may focus on hockey maybe a little more than they might if they were distracted and had some uncertainty about the safety of the situation."

"Obviously it's up to everyone's individual responsibility to be smart, but the setup's great," Strome added. "Everyone that's in the bubble is being tested and is following protocols, and as long as everyone's smart and takes care of their own business and is responsible, I don't really see how the bubble isn't going to work. We've just got to keep doing what we're doing, everybody's got to be smart and do it for the greater good, and I think everyone just wants to play games and get the show on the road. I think we're on our way towards that."

First Practice in Toronto: Check

With the first day of bubble practice complete, another milestone has been checked off the list of things that need to happen before games begin in earnest.

And with that, the Rangers are one step closer to Wednesday's exhibition game vs. the Islanders. After two weeks of practice against each other, and only each other, the game-like opportunity will be a welcome one for this group, exhibition or not.

"I think the exhibition game will give us a barometer of where we're at with everything - offensively, defensively, special teams," Quinn said. "We think we're making progress, we think we're close to where we need to be, but we're going to find out. It's very difficult to tell right now, and I would guarantee you 23 other teams would tell you the same thing.

"It's difficult to try to emulate real game situations in your practices and your scrimmages. You try to get as close to it as possible, but there's nothing like lining up against somebody that's not on your team and seeing an unfamiliar face. We're going to find out an awful lot of things on Wednesday."

On the ice, it'll be nice for the Rangers to approximate a game-like feel on Wednesday. But even off the ice, there is plenty of value in simply getting into the building they'll be playing in when the puck drops for their qualifying-round series against Carolina.

"That's going to be totally different from anything these guys have gone through in their careers, for the most part, so I think that might be the biggest reason to have these exhibition games, is to go through a game where you don't have anybody in the building and it's a completely different environment," Quinn said. "I think that's really going to be helpful to all of the teams."

Regardless of whether Wednesday's game counts, the bottom line is this: Nobody has played a real-life hockey game since March 11. At most, players have played against one another in practice.

It's not the same. As such, Wednesday can't come soon enough.

"Being off the ice and out of games for 4-5 months, it's an exhibition game, but I also think it's a very important step that each team's got to take towards the ultimate goal," Strome said. "If we can use that game to our advantage and stay healthy and get a feel for that game-like experience and certain protocols that surround the game day, I think it's just going to be more beneficial. Definitely a different feel, but at the end of the day, once the puck drops, the hockey's the same. We're all looking forward to that first game, and the exhibition game that first day is the first step."

Quote of the Day

"It was a good pace. It was purposeful. I thought yesterday was sloppy even though I thought we tried to do the right thing. Today, there was a lot more crispness to what we were trying to accomplish, and we were happy with the step we took today." - Coach Quinn on the team's first practice in the bubble

Through Our Eyes 

 Tweet from @NYRangers: Bubble hockey time.

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