ST. PAUL, Minn. - Regardless of whether the Rangers won or lost at the Xcel Energy Center last night, it was a memorable experience for four Rangers - two veterans who once played for the Wild and two rookies who grew up in Minnesota and were returning for the first time as pros.
About three hours before the game, wearing his white Rangers No. 10 jersey, shorts and sneakers, one of those veterans, Marian Gaborik, stood in the corridor. He not only was the Wild's first-ever draft pick but the team's all-time leading scorer and the face of the expansion team for eight seasons.
Gaborik, who signed a five-year, $37.5-million deal with the Rangers on July 1, 2009, missed last season's game here Oct. 30 because of a minor knee injury. When he saw the schedule this season, he immediately looked for the rematch.
He told some local reporters that he now knows his way around New York, but on this occasion, landing at the airport brought back a distinct memory. "It was freezing," he said with a grin. "I've been thinking about this game for a while, more and more after [Friday's] game."
Naturally, his mind drifted back to some of the teammates he left behind: Andrew Brunette, Brett Burns, Nick Schultz.
"I started out with Bruno, a great guy. He helped me the first couple years," he said. "Schultzy's been here since I came. They're all good guys. Burnsie's gonna be fired up. We exchanged some text messages, so it's going to be an interesting night . . . You want to go out there and try your best. Hopefully, we'll get a couple of points."
Gaborik recently said he was unsure about the reception he would receive from the Wild fans. "It's hard to say. Last year when I wasn't playing, it wasn't that great when they announced injured guys,'' he said. "I can't control how they're going to react. Hopefully, it's going to be pleasant. I think I've done a lot of good things here."
Enforcer Derek Boogaard, who agreed to a four-year deal with the Rangers this past summer after five seasons with the Wild, had an opinion on that. "If anything, it should be all positive," he said. "I think some guys wanted to play against [Gaborik] last year. I think the defensemen didn't want to play against him."
As for his own sentiments regarding his first visit back to his old arena, he said: "It'll be a good feeling, but it'll definitely be different, especially being on the other side. I don't know if I'm nervous, but it's somewhere along those lines."
The rookies - center Derek Stepan, who grew up in Hastings, Minn., and defenseman Michael Sauer, from St. Cloud - were playing their first NHL game at Xcel.
Stepan, 20, played here during his two seasons at the University of Wisconsin but said this would be special because three busloads of friends and relatives were attending. Like his NHL debut and playing in the World Juniors, he said, "It feels important."
Sauer, 23, who rooms with Stepan on the road, expected 20 to 25 friends and relatives.
"They probably haven't seen me play since high school," said Sauer, who recalled stopping by to visit the display of state high school jerseys on one concourse. "Whenever we came here, we always went to look for our high school jerseys. Not sure I'll get a chance to do that this time."