- Katie Strang, ESPN.com
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PITTSBURGH -- New York Rangers veteran center Brad Richards recalled a game more than three years ago, back when he was playing for the Dallas Stars. It was a 3-2 shootout loss for the Stars at American Airlines Center, and it was a game Richards remembers well because of the way defenseman Marc Staal performed.
He recalled how hard of a time he had playing against Staal, whose long reach and sound stick work disrupted Dallas’ play during the 33:06 of ice time Staal logged. Staal finished the game with an assist and a plus-1. That stellar match has stuck with Richards even since the two have become teammates on Broadway.
After a rocky two years that were largely derailed following a pair of devastating injuries, Staal is looking more and more like that player Richards remembers.
"We've only been able to see a little bit of it because all of the major injuries he’s had, not just little things," Richards said. "That takes a lot of time. I think as time goes, a full year this year pretty much, hopefully we’ll see him closer and closer to how he was."
Staal missed extended time due to lingering effects of a concussion in 2012, and he endured another lengthy absence after a harrowing eye injury in 2013, but Staal played in 72 regular-season games and all eight playoff matches for the Rangers this season. That sort of continuity has enabled the re-emergence of Staal as one of the steadiest defensemen in the league.
He was awarded the team’s sartorial MVP trophy, the Broadway Hat, following his effort in the Rangers' 3-2 overtime victory in Game 1 of their second-round series against the Pittsburgh Penguins. He ranks third on the team in ice time with an average of 20:24 and has two points and is plus-7 through eight games in these playoffs.
His teammates have been heartened to see this progress, not just as benefactors of his play on the ice, but because of how well-liked and respected Staal is off the ice, as well.
"I've got nothing but good things to say about Marc Staal,” said young center Derek Stepan, who was invited to live with Staal while he was in between apartments during the NHL lockout. "Since I’ve gotten here, he’s been someone I can lean on."
Rangers coach Alain Vigneault knew Staal only by reputation while Vigneault was coaching in Vancouver. This season he has gotten to witness the 27-year-old’s growth first-hand.
New York Rangers
"I think he’s a guy this year that has improved throughout the year,” Vigneault said during the Rangers’ media availability in Pittsburgh Saturday afternoon. “We always knew he was a good defender and he’s still one of the best defenders in the league in my opinion but he’s also, this year, he’s improved his puck decisions. He improved moving the puck, helping us break out a little quicker out of our own end.”
That’s been vital for the Rangers, especially this season, as they’ve embraced a speed game that requires the defensemen to activate from the back end. Those sort of quick plays had given Staal difficulty in the past. His eye injury previously effected his depth perception and appeared to make him less sure of himself when he had the puck.
But constant repetition and consistent playing time have improved that facet of his play, as he has reverted back to trusting his instincts rather than trying to anticipate the play.
“The more hockey you play, the more automatic things become. You kind of get into the groove as the season goes along where you’re not always thinking too much, you’re just playing,” Staal said. “At the large part at the beginning of the year, I was thinking too much of what I should do next instead of just reacting or playing, and those decisions [that] become natural and automatic to you weren’t there really at the beginning. Throughout the year, I think that’s gotten better.”
Staal’s return to form has been a godsend to the Rangers, particularly in the playoffs when neutralizing an opponent’s top players becomes even more critical throughout the course of a seven-game series. The Rangers already boast an outstanding first defensive pairing in Ryan McDonagh and Dan Girardi, but Staal’s steadiness on the blue line has meshed seamlessly with the understated, yet heady, Anton Stralman.
"He’s a great player. He’s very underrated, I think," Staal said of his Swedish counterpart. "He doesn’t get as much attention as he deserves. He’s been playing great all year long. Very smart with the puck, very good positionally and he’s got a good stick. We work well together, so we want to keep that going."
The Rangers do, too. The team’s forward depth has provided an edge during this playoff run, and the team’s balance on the back end is becoming a tremendous asset, as well. The defensive corps effectively shut down Philadelphia’s top line in the first round, and it already seems to be thriving against a top-heavy Penguins team that has opted to both load up Crosby and Malkin and use them on separate lines so as to create a more balanced attack.
Neither player scored a goal Friday. Crosby was held off the scoresheet for the 12th consecutive playoff game and finished the night at minus-3. If this trend continues, and Staal remains an integral part of the equation, the Rangers will be in excellent shape.
“That’s a benefit of the team and why we’re in the second round, probably,” Richards said. "It’s going to be tough every night with those guys [Crosby and Malkin]; they’re world-class players and they’re going to keep coming. It’s going to be a challenge for [Staal and Stralman], but we’re very happy to have them back there doing what they’re doing.”
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