The day has arrived.
For the first time since Oct. 22, 2009, Paul Ranger will skate in an NHL regular season game, Tuesday night when the Toronto Maple Leafs
visit the Montreal Canadiens
He has never come out and said exactly why, but the 29-year-old defenceman walked away from the sport following a 5-2 victory for his Tampa Bay Lightning over the San Jose Sharks that day.
After nearly three years on the sideline, Ranger returned to professional hockey
with the Toronto Marlies of the American Hockey League last season.
And now he returns to the NHL with the Toronto Maple Leafs, which begs the question: Is playing your first big-league game in three years surreal or simply business as usual?
"Those are two extremes," Ranger said. "I don't think it is either-or. It's not quite surreal and in a way it is business as usual because this is my job. I want to be here...I am glad I am here. It's been a long road and I don't really know how to describe the way I feel. We'll see how it plays out. I'm still kind of soaking it all in."
If Ranger can get back to the level of play he displayed with the Lightning in his four seasons in Tampa Bay
, then the Maple Leafs have themselves quite a find.
In 270 games with the Lightning, Ranger had 18 goals and 92 points with 218 penalty minutes while averaging 21 minutes 23 seconds of ice time per game. Top-4 rearguard
The six-foot-three, 210-pound Whitby, Ont., native had eight goals and 25 points in 51 games with the Marlies last season. While still trying to get up to NHL speed, all indications are Ranger should be a top-four defender with the Maple Leafs.
It's one thing to play in the NHL and quite another to play in Toronto where the sport is covered like it is a life-and-death matter. It is a far cry from the quiet times in Tampa Bay.
"Sure it's different," Ranger said. "I think there is a little more attention and more things to deal with mentally, but it's something you learn to deal with. It's a skill. You learn to focus. It can be a distraction so I focus on what I need to do and that is taking care of everything I need to do to be successful."
Having made the playoffs last year for the first time since 2003-04, there will be pressure on the Maple Leafs to advance beyond the first round this season. Ranger likes what he sees from his new team thus far.
"On the defensive side I think we have a lot of guys that are able to produce defensively and offensively," Ranger said. "I'm pleasantly uplifted with our goaltending. James has impressed me a lot. He has played very well. Even in practice he works very hard and he's a good character individual.
"On the forward side we have a good mix; all the aspects of a good hockey team. There's toughness, there are grinders, there are penalty-killers, there are winners. And we have some scorers and skill guys."
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