Originally posted on The Rangers Tribune  |  Last updated 1/8/12

NEW YORK - JANUARY 25: Marc Staal #18 of the New York Rangers skates against the Pittsburgh Penguins skates against on January 25, 2010 at Madison Square Garden in New York City. Penguins defeated the Rangers 4-2. (Photo by Mike Stobe/Getty Images)

Defenseman Marc Staal knew he was up for a challenge when returning to the Rangers lineup for the first time since last April on Monday during the 2012 NHL Winter  Classic in Philadelphia. As a professional hockey player, you can do everything in the world to get yourself mentally and physically prepared in practice and in the weight room, but nothing compares to the feel of a game or the stress it will put your body through. Staal understood and while there is still much work to be done, he's made exceptional progress in his first three games of the season. 

It was obvious that in the game against Philadelphia, Staal clearly was not the same shutdown defenseman the team relied so heavily on all throughout last season - which is why he played through a concussion for most of 2011 in the first place. Marc's timing on many plays was off, he wasn't keeping up with the opposition's top forwards and he definitely was slightly hesitant to get involved physically. That, though, was expected and considered part of the process in his ongoing recovery. 

Marc had 12:41 of ice time in that first game, which made up a total of 20 shifts. He played just ten seconds more in his second game of the season, which was on Thursday at Madison Square Garden against the Florida Panthers. Head coach John Tortorella stated from day one that he would slowly work Staal in, which is the best way of going about it especially after seeing what's gone on with Sidney Crosby of the Pittsburgh Penguins. 

Staal, though, has been on a much quicker pace than the coaches expected he would, though, and we saw that in his most recent outing in Pittsburgh on Friday. He received 15 minutes of ice time in that one, in which he was handed bigger responsibilities and saw a little more of the opposition's faster players. Staal held up very well and even was engaged physically, before and after the whistle, multiple times throughout the night. He even threw one of his heavy body checks in the neutral zone during the third period, which was the first we've seen from him since his return. 

“He’s handled himself very well since he’s been back. He was our best defenseman last year. Dan Girardi has been a rock for us back there this year, but we still look at Marc as our top guy and it won’t be too long until he gets back to the level we’re accustomed to.” - Brandon Dubinsky to the NY Post

Staal has been placed on the third pairing with Stu Bickel to this point, and so far they've worked well together with Bickel being a very talkative player out on the ice. Bickel's vocals, coupled with his on-ice awareness, have dramatically made Staal's job out there easier. Again, another smart coaching move by Tortorella that's gone a long way. 

It may be a while until Staal is back at the top of his game and ready to jump into the top two pairings on defense, but he's rapidly returning to form, and the back-to-back this past week helped him out a lot...

“I felt a lot better [Friday] than the night before, my energy level was better. I’ve got that sore, training-camp feeling going now, but I’m starting to get into it.”

“I’ve never played 13 or 15 minutes in a game before, and it is difficult. But right now, those minutes seem like a lot more.” - Staal to the NY Post

It seems like Staal and the coaches are very much on the same page here, and I think as long as that stays constant, he will be back to his normal self quicker than many expected. The fact that the Rangers have been so successful without Staal this season has enabled Tortorella to ease Staal back into things and not immediately force him into situations that he may not be ready for. 

“I think that’s what has to be done,” Tortorella said. “We have to go through the process. With him missing [training] camp and so many games, we’re going to slowly go about it. Maybe we’ll add [minutes] and sometimes maybe we’ll take away, depending on how the process goes.”

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