With defenseman Michael Del Zotto out of the lineup on Friday against the Tampa Bay Lightning, it was expected that the first pairing of Dan Girardi and Ryan McDonagh, as they so often do, would have to take on a heavier workload in DZ's absence. However, much to the surprise of many, that duty was passed straight over Girardi and McDonagh and splatted on the plate of Marc Staal, who was playing in just his 25th game of the season at the time. At the end of the night, Staal led the New York Rangers in ice time and was an absolute wall on defense for his club. At that point, at least in my opinion, it was time to consider Marc "back to normal."
The coaching staff has very slowly eased Staal back into the process after he missed four months of the season including training camp due to post-concussion symptoms. He returned on January 2 against the Philadelphia Flyers in the 2012 Winter Classic, in what was a wake-up call for him in many ways. As he repeatedly said, there's no way to simulate the flow of a game in practice, so to prepare for what he would endure that first day back was nearly impossible. However, Staal held his own out there and has progressed ever since.
For a while Marc skated on the third pairing of defense so that the coaches could limit his game-by-game ice time. We've seen how jumping right back into things after a concussion could be costly (Sidney Crosby), or even how it could terminate a career (Marc Savard). Marc Staal is far to valuable to the present and the future of this franchise to take any risks, so I fully approve of the approach John Tortorella took there.
But at some point, as the same top four defensemen were tirelessly put out there, it was time to get a healthy Staal on the second pairing. We saw that this past weekend, and at times even saw Marc reunited with Dan Girardi on the first pairing. The result? He led the team in ice time not only Friday as I mentioned above, but yesterday against the Philadelphia Flyers as well.
Tortorella has yet to admit it, but Staal is right about where the Rangers wanted him this season. I mean, he went up against the Steven Stamkos line on Friday, and that's one of the deadliest trios in the National Hockey League right there. Granted the defense as a whole had an off night that game, but Staal definitely stood out as the club's best blue-liner.
And then yesterday, again, he was put out there against an uptempo offensive team in the Flyers, and he proved to be rock solid in that game as well. This is the Marc Staal we were used to seeing last year and the year before that. He's finally returned to his normal state.
Staal said this following the game in Tampa....
“I knew I was playing more but it didn’t feel like that much more,” said Staal to Ranger Rants, adding it was a good sign it came in the second game of a back to back. “Just put it into cruise control and just feel like you’re getting back.”
See, even Marc himself is admitting that he's feeling like he's reached a state of normalcy out there again. And really, the Rangers couldn't ask for him to come along like this at a better time. With the playoffs just around the corner, Staal is going to play a big role on the back-end in front of Henrik Lundqvist if this team makes a magical run.