There’s nothing that boosts a lineup quite like the return of a player after a long injury absence. In Game 3, the Rangers got that shot of adrenaline when defenseman Marc Staal played in his first game since being hit near his right eye by the puck back on March 5.
Staal skated 17 minutes 17 seconds alongside Anton Stralman and was on the ice for one goal against (Jay Beagle) Monday night.
While that ice time is far from his usual average of 24 minutes, and the 26-year-old blueliner acknowledged he will need to get used to playing with changes in his vision, Staal was glad to be back and making a difference.
“I thought I’d be more nervous, I think, than I was. I felt pretty good going in,” Staal said. “I think the confidence is going to grow the more I’m out there and the more I’m in game situations.”
The biggest adjustments to Staal’s game will come in his timing, as he gets up to the speed of the playoffs after being sidelined for two months and learns how to play with less-than-perfect vision.
“I could tell on the ice, it’s different,” Staal said. “You play your whole life with 20-20 vision and you step out there and things definitely are changed. But for the most part, it went pretty well.”
Staal’s place in the lineup as a top-four defenseman, even in this early stage, helps to balance the workload among the rest of the Rangers’ blueliners. It was no coincidence that both Dan Girardi (22:58) and Ryan McDonagh (20:55) – New York’s heavily-used top pairing – saw their lowest ice time of the series in Game 3 upon Staal’s return.
“It’s huge. He makes the D corps kind of calm. He’s got a presence about him,” Rangers center Derek Stepan said. “He can just control a game. He did a great job. Early on, he had a little bit of the jitters but he got back to [being] himself and I couldn’t be happier for him.”
Even the Capitals are aware of how much Staal means to the New York lineup. Earlier in the series when Staal’s return was speculated, Washington’s Karl Alzner admitted that this particular foe is “one of my favorite defensemen in the league.”
“He plays great shutdown, he’s got a great stick, he makes the right plays, he can chip in offensively,” Alzner said on May 4. “He did some damage against us last year in the playoffs. I just like his game. Even if he’s 60, 70 percent I think he could really help them out.”