NEW YORK — For Anton Stralman, the Rangers were his "last chance" in the NHL, a team that helped him re-invent himself into a top-pairing defenseman.
Wing Ryan Callahan hoped to spend his entire career with the Rangers, who drafted him in the fourth round in 2004 and made him captain before shipping him to Tampa Bay in March in the Marty St. Louis trade.
Center Brian Boyle will never forget his time in New York, where he met his wife, Lauren, and teamed up with Stralman to reach the Stanley Cup final just five months ago.
Considering the trio came of age in New York, there will likely be a mixture of emotions when they return to Madison Square Garden tonight to face their former team with Tampa Bay.
"It's something special," Stralman said. "A little emotional and fun at the same time. That's one of the big games that if I'm looking at the schedule, I think 'Cally' and 'Boyler' would say the same thing. If there's one game out of the regular season you really want to win, it's this one."
Stralman, 28, credits his three seasons in New York (2011-14) for getting him where he is now, thriving in Tampa Bay after signing a five-year, $22.5 million free agent deal July 1. In 2011 Stralman was desperate. After being let go by the Blue Jackets, he participated in a training camp tryout with the Devils but left without a contract. He ended up signing with the Rangers in November.
"That whole summer was kind of a blur," Stralman said. "I didn't know what was going to happen, which league I was going to play in, which country I was going to move to. I was more thinking about a tryout or talking to get a deal in the KHL (in Europe). I felt like, 'I want to give this one last try, and maybe this is the last chance. I would be stupid If I just let it go.' "
The move paid off. The the Rangers' coach, John Tortorella cultivated the defensive game of the offensive-minded Swede. Now Stralman is a complete player, logging 20-plus minutes in all situations while being plus-13, the best among league defensemen entering Sunday. "(New York) had a big part of my development as a player," he said. "Where I am today is a lot because of it."
Callahan, 29, a Rochester, N.Y. native, became a fan favorite in New York over seven seasons. But after contract-extension negotiations last spring didn't work out, "Captain Cally" was sent to Tampa Bay with two first-round draft picks. Callahan, who signed a six-year, $34.8 million deal with the Lightning in June, has fond memories of New York, but he doesn't know what to expect tonight.
"I'm going to embrace it and enjoy it," he said.
Boyle, 29, didn't get a serious chance to play in the NHL until he got traded in June 2009 to New York from the Kings, who had experimented with using him as a defenseman. In five years with the Rangers, Boyle carved a niche as a valuable checking forward, penalty killer and faceoff man. With New York appearing ready to move on, Boyle jumped at the chance July 1 to join Tampa Bay on a three-year, $6 million deal.
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On a reunion night — St. Louis faces the Lightning for the first time since the trade — the ex-Rangers could get a hero's welcome.
"They could boo us or cheer us. Nothing would surprise me," Boyle said. "I have no idea."
"I don't know. It's a fickle place there in MSG," Callahan said, smiling. "But that's what it's all about, great crowd, great fans. I'm excited to go back and play."