"He rode with me to the game and I could tell he was nervous, but that's to be expected," McDonagh said. "He's coming back in a big situation. But he's an assistant captain and I thought he stepped up and played a tremendous game."
Staal played his first game since being struck in the right eye by a deflected shot in a game against the Philadelphia Flyers on March 5. He missed 29 straight games and admits that he still has blurred vision, but he played a relatively mistake-free 21 shifts totaling 17:17 of ice time to help the New York Rangers get back in this Eastern Conference Quarterfinal series against the Washington Capitals with a 4-3 win.
Washington leads the best-of-7 series 2-1 with Game 4 set for Wednesday at MSG (7:30 p.m. ET, NBCSN, TSN, RDS2).
"I didn't know what to anticipate, to be honest with you," Staal said. "I wasn't thinking too much. I just wanted to get out there and get my feet wet. The guys did a good job around me supporting me on the ice."
Staal received a loud ovation when he was shown on the scoreboard during warmups. It was even louder when he was announced as part of the starting lineup.
"I had chills the whole warmup," Staal said. "That was pretty special."
His chills may have calmed down his nerves. Staal said he thought he'd be more nervous than he was when the game started.
He eventually got into the flow of the game, but it was obvious to him how different it was to play with blurred vision coupled with a visor. Staal was not wearing a visor when he got hit in the eye.
"You play your whole life with 20-20 vision and you step out there and things are definitely changed," Staal said. "For the most part, it went pretty well. I think you're just thinking about it more. You're not used to playing so it's constantly in your head. If you don't have it you're just reacting, just playing, your instincts take over. I want to get to that point as soon as possible."
Staal was hoping to play earlier in the series, but said he was experiencing some issues with the vision in his eye last week so he couldn't play in either of the first two games in Washington.
"If I was ready last week, I would have played," Staal said. "It had nothing to do with our situation or where we were playing. Without getting into too much detail, the eye was kind of acting up last week. The vision wasn't cooperating the way I wanted it to on the ice. That cleared up the last few days and I got two good days of practice in and felt comfortable and confident to get back in there."
The Rangers felt a lift by his return. It was similar to how they felt when he returned from his concussion to play in the 2012 Bridgestone NHL Winter Classic in Philadelphia.
"It helps the room. He's so respected in the room," Rangers coach John Tortorella said. "This is two major injuries he's come back from. Even before we step on the ice, I think that really helps your room. He's just so well-liked. There were times you could tell it's going to take a little bit for him to really get back, but he made some really big plays at time. Just the speed of the game is what he's going to have to get used to."
Staal agrees. But, for one night at least his return played a part in the Rangers getting back in the series.
"He makes our 'D' corps calm. He's got a presence about him that he can just control a game," said Derek Stepan, who scored the winning goal Monday with 6:25 left in the third period. "He did a great job. Early on, I think he had a little bit of the jitters, but he found a way to just get back to himself. I couldn't be happier for him."