PHILADELPHIA -- When Marc Staal met with specialist Dr. Robert Cantu in November, after being shut down for a month to recover from post-concussion symptoms, he was told the earliest he'd be back was the new year.
Staal didn't circle the date on the calendar. Instead, he wrote it off to protect himself from the disappointment he'd experience had he not been able to play in this year's Winter Classic at Citizens Bank Park.
Turns out Staal didn't need to take that measure.
The 24-year-old defenseman was given the green light to play before the annual outdoor game and, after a conversation with coach John Tortorella at the Rangers' team dinner Sunday, made the decision.
On hockey's grandest stage, Staal made his long-awaited season debut and played in his first game in almost 10 months.
"I thought with the enormity of the event I could kind of squeeze in and do my thing," he said after the game.
Staal didn't snap back to his team-leading 25:44 minutes per game form that sealed his spot as the anchor of the back end last season. He was limited in the Rangers' 3-2 win over the Flyers, playing only 12:41 over 13 shifts.
But after the mental anguish he experienced going through the trying and often uncertain recovery from a concussion sustained last February, including in the hours before making his decision to play Sunday, Staal was just happy to be back on the ice and playing hockey.
"As the game wore on I felt better physically and more comfortable in the game," said Staal, who also posted a plus-one rating. "The first shift I felt lost … I was a bit of a wreck there, but I felt more and more comfortable."
Tortorella, who told reporters Sunday that Staal would not play in Monday's match, didn't play him much. He matched him with Stu Bickel as part of the team's third defensive pairing and made an effort to ease him in incrementally.
The cornerstone of the Rangers' defense was nowhere near his sharpest, but his presence provided the team an intangible lift.
"The game was pretty quick for him. He readily admitted it his first few shifts," Tortorella said. "There were some mistakes here and there, but it's great to have him in the lineup."
Despite the magnitude of the game and the magnitude of his comeback, there was no formal announcement of Staal's return to the Rangers dressing room. He texted a few teammates Monday morning to find out when they planned to arrive at the rink. Some didn't find out he was back in the lineup until right before the puck dropped.
When they did, they were blown away.
"I was really impressed by the ice, but I was more impressed by Staal coming back," said goaltender Henrik Lundqvist, who stopped 34 of 36 shots. "I didn't really know he was going to play. When I saw him out there, I was shocked. He did an amazing job. It's not easy coming here and playing for the first time in 10 months. Outstanding. The confidence he will bring for our group, it's going to be big."