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Rangers rally around defenseman Staal

| Saturday, May 3, 2014, 9:54 p.m.
Chaz Palla | Tribune-Review
The Rangers' Marc Staal defends the Penguins' Evgeni Malkin during the first period of Game 1 of their second-round Stanley Cup playoff series Friday, May 2, 2014, at Consol Energy Center.

New York Rangers center Derek Stepan can't seem to find a bad word to say about defenseman Marc Staal. He's not alone.

Staal, who let Stepan live with him for four months during the NHL lockout, has been a rallying point for the Rangers after finally distancing himself from a pair of concussions, a small retinal tear and a fractured orbital bone, injuries that have disrupted his past three seasons.

“You see the way he's played down the stretch,” Stepan said Saturday, an off day for the Rangers after their 3-2 overtime victory over the Penguins in Game 1 of their Stanley Cup second-round series. “We rally around that because he's played so great.

“Off the ice, he's someone who always seems to be in a good mood. He's a guy you can certainly enjoy yourself around.”

Stepan did during their time together — even though he admitted Staal, “beat me up pretty good in the squash court,” while Stepan was looking for a place to crash before he moved into a new apartment.

Staal, 27, who is two years older than his brother and former Penguins player Jordan, played a team-high 26 minutes, 3 seconds in Game 1, including 4:41 short-handed, as the Rangers killed all four Pittsburgh power plays.

“Defending with his stick and his long reach, he can cover a lot of ground,” Rangers center Brad Richards said of Staal. “When you play against those big defenders with a long reach like that, it makes for an annoying night.”

Staal was an All-Star with the Rangers after scoring seven goals and tallying 29 points in 2011. His next few seasons were significantly worse, however.

He missed the first few months the next year after it was discovered he suffered a concussion in February 2011. Staal didn't return until Jan. 2, 2012. A puck to the eye in March 2013 drew more than 1 million YouTube views because it was so ugly and made players around the league — Staal included — consider protective headgear.

He played a combined 67 games during the 2011-12 and '12-13 seasons, but Staal, who missed about three weeks in December with another concussion, never doubted his ability to return.

“Coming back from injuries is not the easiest thing,” Staal said. “For me, all the ability and things that I've done are still there. Nothing has changed. It's just a matter of doing it consistently.”

Staal has been consistent this season. He ranked third on the Rangers in ice time during the regular season at 20:31, trailing only the top defensive pairing of Ryan McDonagh (24:49) and Dan Girardi (23:07).

In Game 5 of the Rangers' first-round series against the Flyers, Staal, who was a plus-6 in seven games, took a drop pass from winger Martin St. Louis and buried a snap shot from the top of the left circle.

Staal's best work, though, has been in the defensive zone, a point demonstrated by Rangers coach Alain Vigneault's willingness to play Staal and partner Anton Stralman interchangeably with McDonagh and Girardi against the Penguins' top players in Game 1.

“The fact that he hadn't played much in the last two years, we always knew he was a good defender,” Vigneault said. “He's still one of the best defenders in the league, in my opinion.

“He's got a good challenge in front of him. He knows that if we're to win, he needs to play well.”

Jason Mackey is a staff writer for Trib Total Media. Reach him at jmackey@tribweb.com or via Twitter @Mackey_Trib.

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