After some smooth sailing with five points in his first five games, Brad Richards hit some rough water. The free-agent center, who signed a nine-year, $60-million contract with the Rangers in July, didn't register a point against Edmonton or Winnipeg, had just two shots on goal in 40:30 and seemed out of synch to close the four-game road trip in western Canada.

Wednesday, after the Rangers practiced for the first time in the semi-transformed Madison Square Garden in advance of Thursday night's home opener against the Maple Leafs, Richards seemed refreshed, displaying the enthusiasm of a rookie.

"It reminds me a little bit of my first game again," said Richards, 31, who played in Tampa and Dallas, not exactly traditional hockey markets. "I've been thinking about it for a while; it seems like it took forever to get here. The first thing you want to do with a new team is get into a new building and play in front of those fans, but that hasn't been the case. I can't wait to experience it . . . There's no better feeling being on the ice in a building with great fans; you feel a little bigger, you feel a little stronger, faster."

Coach John Tortorella, who was behind the Tampa bench when Richards and the Lightning won the Stanley Cup in 2004, said Richards understands what to expect in New York.

"That's why he wanted to come here, he wants this challenge, and everything that comes with the city," Tortorella said of Richards, whose presence already has been felt by Marian Gaborik, who has four goals, all from assists by No. 19. "There's accountability that comes into play when you come into a big market. That's why Brad Richards is Brad Richards. He wanted this . . . So, this is a great situation for Richie. I don't worry about him; I think he's going to settle other people down."

The Rangers won three of four in western Canada, although they haven't played a complete game in seven tries and the 3-2-2 record is deceiving.

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"I don't want to make excuses, but we're going to find some energy with our fans and getting into a normal lifestyle," Richards said.

The return of defenseman Michael Sauer, who missed five games with a right shoulder tear, will bolster the defense, but as players used the sparkling new weight room and construction workers noisily applied the finishing touches to suites and concourses, Tortorella summed up the visit.

"We love what we see," he said. "The transformation of our locker room, the whole situation. But we need to win; that's what makes a building good: Winning in it."