Staal relieved in return to action

NEWARK, N.J. -- During the first week of training camp, Marc Staal sounded confident that the harrowing eye injury that sidelined him for half of last season would no longer be an issue.

He skated all summer, gave his eye time to heal and adjust, and finally felt comfortable with his ability to read and react on the ice.

But all that meant very little until he actually played a game.

After Monday’s first exhibition match of the 2013-14 season, a 2-1 loss to the Devils, Staal had the relieved look of someone who had passed a very significant milestone.

The 26-year-old defenseman, who missed several months after being struck in the eye with a puck during a game in March, played 21 minutes, 56 seconds over 25 shifts and came away feeling a world of difference from the previous time he tried to return, during the playoffs this past spring.

“I felt good in July, good going into camp, but there’s no animal like a game,” Staal said. “To feel as good as I did the first few shifts, I was comfortable out there. I was confident I was seeing everything. It was a bit of a relief ... and I’m just glad it’s over and I can keep playing again.”

That also has to be a tremendous relief to the Rangers, who need the steady, sound blueliner to anchor their back end along with the likes of Dan Girardi and Ryan McDonagh.

His absence created a void that was difficult to fill this past spring, especially once the playoffs began and the games (and competition) got tougher.

Although Staal valiantly attempted to come back and help the Rangers during the team’s first-round series against the Washington Capitals, he quickly realized he wasn’t ready.

On Monday he had no such worry once the puck dropped and he played his first few shifts with defensive partner Michael Del Zotto.

“As soon as I got through the intensity of the first few shifts, I couldn’t even compare it with the game I played in the playoffs in the way I felt,” Staal said. “It went really good.”

New coach Alain Vigneault, who was behind the bench for the first time since being hired in June to replace John Tortorella, was pleased to see Staal return with no complications. He said he could sense the trepidation from him before the game.

“You could tell he was a little anxious and a little nervous, and rightfully so,” Vigneault said. “I thought he didn’t give up on pucks when the puck was bouncing, he talked to his partner all night long and I think it’s only going to get better for Marc.”

Because of the 27 games he missed last season, Staal is aiming to play more than usual this preseason. Although he will not play Tuesday in Philadelphia, Staal is planning on playing in three of the next four games that follow once the team heads out west for the rest of its exhibition tour.