The fortunes of the New York Rangers in the Stanley Cup Playoffs may hinge on a player who hasn't taken the ice since March 5 -- and may not be ready when the puck drops on the postseason.
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Rangers defenseman Marc Staal was the victim of a scary injury against the Philadelphia Flyers nearly two months ago. A slap shot from Flyers defenseman Kimmo Timonen ricocheted off the stick of teammate Jakub Voracek and hit Staal above his right eye. At the time of the injury, Staal was arguably the Rangers' No. 1 defenseman, replacing Ryan McDonagh on the team's top pairing with Dan Girardi.
Since the injury, the Rangers have solidified their blue line with the acquisition of John Moore in a four-player trade with the Columbus Blue Jackets. Though Moore has solidified the back end of the defense corps, the Rangers will need a healthy Staal to better their chances of pulling a first-round upset and making another deep run.
"With any kind of any other injury, I'd be in there sooner rather than later," Staal said April 18.
At the time of the injury, Staal was playing 24:27 per game and looking like the defenseman he was before a concussion at the end of 2010-11 hampered him at times last season. In the 12 complete games he played before the injury, Staal was on the ice for at least 26 minutes in eight of them.
The postseason generally boils down to matchups, and the top teams can throw two scoring lines at the opposition. Rangers coach John Tortorella usually goes with Girardi and McDonagh against the opponent's top scorers, but with Staal in the mix, it provides balance against a second line. A combination of Staal and Anton Stralman as a second pairing also would strengthen the third unit of Michael Del Zotto with either Moore or Steve Eminger.
Staal has been taking part in practices for about three weeks and he traveled with the team on its final road trip of the season. Conditioning shouldn't be as large an issue as it would with other injuries, which means Staal could hit the ice skating upon his return once he gets his timing back.
"I just have to feel comfortable, get confident with the puck in situations on the ice I'm going to encounter in a game," Staal said. "I need to do that as much as I can every day, certain drills and puck skills where everything becomes automatic again."
Staal has practiced with a tinted visor and said he's slowly adjusting to bright lights and that his depth perception is improving. He's no guarantee to be ready for Game 1 of the Eastern Conference Quarterfinals, but if he's there, it would provide the Rangers a lift like the one the Pittsburgh Penguins would receive by getting forward Sidney Crosby back for the start of the postseason.
"I'm starting to feel better on the ice and I'm adjusting to what I'm seeing," Staal said last week. "I just hope that it keeps on improving."