PHILADELPHIA -- Marc Staal never ruled out playing in the 2012 Bridgestone NHL Winter Classic, but there certainly was a time when he wouldn't even dare dream about it.
The dream, though, became a reality Monday.
After nearly eight months, Staal returned to the Rangers lineup for the his team's 3-2 victory against the Philadelphia Flyers at Citizens Bank Park. It was a debut that nobody expected to happen.
Less than 24 hours earlier, the Rangers had all but ruled out their No. 1 defenseman again, but Staal told coach John Tortorella at their team dinner Sunday night that he was ready to go.
"To be back in the lineup and part of the team and around the guys, it's a relief," Staal said.
Staal missed training camp due to post-concussion symptoms stemming from a hit he suffered in February, ironically one delivered by Carolina Hurricanes captain Eric Staal, Marc's older brother. Staal was shut down for a month during October and November, relegated to complete rest while his brain recovered.
Following that, Staal met with Dr. Robert Cantu to discuss his return. The timetable Cantu gave Staal didn't sound believable to the 24-year-old.
"When I saw Dr. Cantu after the month I was shut down, he said the earliest that I'd be able to come back would be the end of the year," Staal said. "That's what he thought then. I was very wary about it. I never really considered myself to play in (the Winter Classic). Once I got clearance from him and (he) said it didn't make a difference if I got hit two weeks from now, three weeks from now, two days from now, I felt comfortable."
Once Tortorella got the OK from trainer Jim Ramsay, Cantu and Staal, the unrealistic goal of playing in the Winter Classic suddenly became very real.
"My stomach started churning," Staal said of his realization that he was going to play in an NHL game for the first time since April. "I was constantly going over what I had to do in the game. Once I calmed down, I had a good sleep, then I kind of went about my business like I usually do, not think about the game too much. Just go out there and react."
While the hockey world was accepting the fact that Staal's comeback game wouldn't take place against the Flyers, the defenseman was tipping his hand to his unsuspecting teammates late Sunday.
"I texted a couple guys because I wanted to come early to the rink today because I wanted to know what time they were leaving, so they knew," Staal said. "But everyone found out kind of on their own. Some guys found out here and some guys found out last night."
Staal spent Monday's game playing mostly on the third pairing with rookie Stu Bickel. The Rangers' ice time leader the previous two seasons, Staal played just 12:41 in his season debut. But, he was on the ice for a key penalty kill in the final minutes of the third period with the Rangers protecting the one-goal lead.
Staal had a mostly clean line on the score sheet. He was plus-1 and registered one hit. The important thing for Staal was he didn't feel any effects after being subjected to the jostling of a NHL game.
"If I got bumped along the boards and I went back to the bench, I'd think about it a little bit," Staal said. "As the game wore on, I felt better physically and more comfortable. My first shift, I felt lost. I was kind of a wreck there, but as the game wore on I felt more comfortable."
Staal's situation mirrored that of his brother Jordan, who missed the Pittsburgh Penguins' first 39 games of the 2010-11 season but returned for the 2011 Winter Classic against the Washington Capitals. Marc said he turned to Jordan for advice on Sunday when he knew he'd making his return in the same fashion.
"I talked to him yesterday. He said he came back early," Staal said. "They gave him a cast on his hand. It's a little different situation with the head. He said he loved playing the game and it was worth it when he came back."
Teammates said Staal's return gave the team a boost heading into the game.
"We're all really excited to have Staalsy back," said Dan Girardi, who has played almost exclusively as Staal's defense partner in the past. "He brings a lot to the team and a lot of leadership. When we found that out, we were really excited to have him back. I thought he did a great job on such a big stage to come in and play a nice simple game and get his feet wet and get back his timing that goes away when you miss so many games.
Staal said it was Bickel, the 25-year-old with six games of NHL experience coming into the Winter Classic, who helped him get acclimated in the unique atmosphere of an outdoor game.
"Bick's was good. He talked a lot on the ice, helped me out," Staal said. "We had some chances against us, but I thought we played well together. He was very talkative. That's kind of what I asked him to do."
"He's been battling to get back and it was awesome for him to get back in the lineup, especially in a game like today," Bickel said. "He makes it easy on me. It was good."
The Rangers haven't missed Staal much this season. Despite his absence, the Rangers are ranked second in the NHL in goals allowed. Ryan McDonagh slid into Staal's spot on the top pairing with Girardi, creating a unit that has been among the most reliable in the League.
That success has made sitting out all season somewhat tolerable for Staal, It will also allow the Rangers, who lead the Eastern Conference with 52 points in 37 games, to be patient as Staal gets his feet under him.
"The game was pretty quick for him," Tortorella said. "He readily admitted early on in his first few shifts. He made some mistakes here and there. It 's great to have him in the lineup.
"We're going to slowly get him about. There's some work to do. With any player, even without a concussion, a player that misses camp, it's a struggle. So we have to be really cognizant of how we use him and not put him in a situation where he doesn't get his game back. It'll be there. He's going to be a very important guy as we go along here."
Staal's return came at the expense of Jeff Woywitka, who has spent a better part of the season on the third pairing.
"I feel terrible about taking Jeff out," Tortorella said. "He's in that lineup and he's ready to play this type of game right up until last night after the meal. But he was terrific when I talked to him. He understands that if Marc Staal says yes to me, he's going to play."
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