NEW YORK – The release of the NHL schedule over the summer was met by an unusual amount of anticipation by Lightning forward Ryan Callahan.

The former Rangers captain quickly flipped through his team’s slate, taking a peek to see when his return to New York would come after a deadline-day deal last season sent him on his way from the only NHL team he had ever known.

November 17, 2014, the date of Tampa’s first game at Madison Square Garden this year, was quickly circled on the calendar. Not just by Callahan but also by free agent signings and former Rangers, Brian Boyle and Anton Stralman.

“I’m excited, really excited to be back and get a chance to play,” Callahan told a throng of reporters early on Monday afternoon. “First time I’ve ever been traded and gotten a chance to play against [an old] team, so it’s a lot of excitement, anticipation. I’m ready for the game to start.”

“I’ve played a few former teams before, but this is by far the most emotional one,” said Stralman, who inked a five-year, $25.5 million deal with the Lightning over the summer. “As soon as the schedule came out, you kind of have been eyeing it for a long time and looking forward to it more than anything else. I’m just going to enjoy tonight, it’s going to be fun.”

Stralman, who played three seasons on Broadway, was a scrap-heap pickup by the team in 2010-11, and turned into a more-than dependable second-pair defenseman during the team’s run to the Stanley Cup Final last year.

“I was more disappointed than anything at the lack of communication there was,” Stralman said of the breakdown in contract negotiations with the Rangers over the summer. “It was very surprising and disappointing, because all I wanted was to stay. It didn’t turn out that way.”

Boyle resurrected his career in New York. After a middling first year with the Rangers, he was a long shot to make the team out of training camp four seasons ago. Instead, he scored a career-high 21 goals, and become a dependable, essential cog on the team’s fourth line.

“New York fans are smart, they’re savvy. They know their sports,” said Lightning coach Jon Cooper. “The one thing about those three guys coming back, I don’t think those were guys the Rangers let go, they’re the result of a financial situation and the salary cap. We’re the beneficiaries of that. Hopefully they’re well-received because they’re great guys and they did a lot of great things for the Rangers, and now they’re doing great things for us.”

“The fans here are unbelievable, I can’t say enough about them,” Callahan said before eliciting loud boos by scoring a pair of goals in the Lightning’s 5-1 win. “The way they brought me in, the way they treated me, cheered for me. I embraced them, I loved them.”

The day Callahan was traded, March 5, was an odd one. He was on the ice for the team’s morning skate, finished his post-skate on-ice stretching, and was pulled into a side office before he could make it back into the locker room. The Rangers were hoping to sign him to an extension after eight years in New York, but with his contract demands too high he was moved to Tampa for veteran forward Martin St. Louis.

“I don’t regret anything. It’s the nature of the business, things happen. For whatever reason, things didn’t work out, [they] decided to move on. There’s no ill feelings towards [the Rangers] at all. That’s what you sign up for, that’s what happens in the business,” Callahan said, before saying he spent time with some of his old teammates Sunday night. “That was part of the hard part about leaving here, I had so many close friends, guys I played with for eight seasons. It was nice to see those guys, we still keep in contact all the time.”

“It’s always a little different when you play former teammates,” said Derick Brassard. “We miss all three of them, they were really good teammates and really good friends.”

“You want to make sure you win the game,” Carl Hagelin said after the morning skate. “If you can’t get up for the game tonight, you’re never going to get up for a game. We’re definitely excited to play them.”

No one more so than Martin St. Louis, who scored a power-play goal in his first appearance against the Lightning since January 8, 2000. The former team captain spent 13 seasons in Tampa Bay before requesting a trade to the Rangers last March.

“The amount of time I’ve been home this year, sleeping at home, being with my kids and seeing their hockey, it’s been great. I’m really pleased with the opportunity that I got to play for a Stanley Cup, and the time I get to be with my kids,” said St. Louis, who lives year-round in suburban Greenwich, CT. “It happened really fast, I didn’t really get a chance to say goodbye to anybody really. It was very sudden. I think, sudden usually brings a little more pain to everybody. I understand some of the fans point of view, and I respect it. But for me and my family, it was time. It was time to move on.”

Duclair says he wants to stay

Rangers forward Anthony Duclair made it pointedly clear Monday morning he wants to stay with the Rangers and not get sent down to juniors.

“I think it’s better for me to stay up here,” Duclair said. “It doesn’t matter if I’m not playing every game. Practicing with this group of players every day and just being around the pro environment will definitely help me in the future. If I go back to juniors, I don’t think I have much to prove there, anymore.’

The 19-year-old possesses NHL-level skill, but is still learning how to play away from the puck. If the Rangers send him back to the QMJHL’s Quebec Remparts, he can’t be recalled until they finish their season.

“It’s alright. I have time to develop,” Duclair said. “I’m not complaining. I’m in the NHL at 19 years old. I’m definitely not complaining, I’d rather be here than in juniors playing first line. I’m here, I’m happy, I hope I stay here all year.”

Duclair, who sat the previous three games before drawing in against the Lightning, had 12:44 TOI on a line with Carl Hagelin and Kevin Hayes in his return.

Rangers humiliated by effort

The Rangers’ 5-1 loss included an inexcusable performance that left Rangers coach Alain Vigneault fuming during his post-game press conference.

“Other than the start to the [first two] periods, everything in between was just a total disaster,” Vigneault said. “We definitely have to, as a group, find the solution to it because we’re a .500 hockey team right now. And .500 does not get you into the playoffs.”

“You know you’re not going to win every game,” St. Louis said. “You can live with yourself losing a game where you know you played the right way, you did some good things. I don’t know how we can live with that one.”

The Rangers managed just 16 shots on goal, their fewest since February 27, 2012.

“We’re very inconsistent,” said defenseman Dan Girardi. “We’re not going to win many games playing like that. I don’t know what kind of team we think we are showing up for the game and not putting any effort in.”

“I think all of us want to win, we want to work hard and try to do the right thing,” said goaltender Henrik Lundqvist, who was hung out to dry all night by the team’s woeful defensive performance. “If we aren’t doing it together the way we should, it’s a tough game.”

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Seth has been covering the Rangers for Inside Hockey since 2008. Follow him on Twitter @RothmanHockey

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