For two seasons, Marc Staal was the Rangers' No. 1 defenseman, leading the team in minutes played while slowly improving the offensive side of his game.
However, concussion symptoms stemming from a hit during the previous season kept him out of the team's first 36 games of the 2011-12 campaign, and Staal has been playing catch-up ever since making his season debut in the Winter Classic on Jan. 2.
Coach John Tortorella says Staal will need an offseason and full training camp to return to his earlier form, but the 25-year-old has been improving throughout the second half of this season. Staal is showing more confidence in terms of joining the rush and has been playing more than 20 minutes per game since mid-February.
Staal's game hasn't progressed on the offensive side of things quite as much as it has defensively. Tortorella used him for a brief time on the power play, but it didn't work out well. The extended layoff has hurt Staal most in terms of his offensive confidence, but past performance illustrates that Staal has the ability to rediscover that facet of his game at any moment.
Still, the defensive zone remains the area in which Staal can give the Rangers the biggest lift.
Ryan McDonagh and Dan Girardi are the undisputed shut-down defensive pair for the Rangers and both players have done excellent jobs in that role all season. That won't change in the playoffs. When opponents throw their top scoring lines on the ice, Tortorella will counter with McDonagh and Girardi.
The difference in the postseason is the depth top teams possess. If the Rangers were to face the New Jersey Devils in the later rounds, no doubt McDonagh and Girardi would draw the assignment of stopping a line with Zach Parise and Ilya Kovalchuk. But the Devils' second line is no slouch and may feature the likes of Patrik Elias, Adam Henrique and/or David Clarkson, who scored 30 goals this season.
Should the Devils, or any team for that matter, take their top two scoring threats and place them on different lines, Tortorella's life is a little easier with the knowledge he can match up Staal against that secondary scoring line.
For that reason, having a No. 1 defenseman on the second pairing can be a difference maker.
Tortorella doesn't want to ride McDonagh/Girardi into the ground, and if he feels Staal is capable of handling a team's second line, it's a luxury that can help the Rangers make a deep run in the Stanley Cup Playoffs.