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Eric Staal excited for return to playoffs

Rangers forward hasn't been to postseason in seven years

by Shawn P. Roarke @sroarke_nhl / NHL.com Director of Editorial

GREENBURGH, N.Y. -- The transition for Eric Staal to the New York Rangers has not gone as smoothly as the veteran forward would have liked.

But he knows the start of the Stanley Cup Playoffs is the opportunity to forge a much more palatable path to the finish line.

"Now is the time of the year when you want to be playing, you want to be on the ice, contributing," Staal said Monday when the Rangers began preparations for their first-round series against the Pittsburgh Penguins. "The biggest thing here is wins. I'm not worried about my individual stats, but if I can contribute offensively, it's going to help us win games. The biggest thing is the wins and that is what this group has been after."

The Eastern Conference First Round series begins in Pittsburgh on Wednesday (8 p.m. ET; USA, SN, TVA Sports, MSG, ROOT).

Big playoff games under the national spotlight are what Staal signed up for when he agreed to be traded from the Carolina Hurricanes after playing the first 12 seasons of his career there and was the captain. He agreed to go to the Rangers in part because they have a recent pedigree of going deep into the postseason and had the pieces in place to continue that trend.

But he knows he has to do his part.

Staal has played 20 games with the Rangers and has three goals and three assists, which is not the level of production he or anyone expected; he scored more than 30 goals five times and has 322 goals in 11-plus seasons with the Hurricanes.

Rangers coach Alain Vigneault would also like to see more goals from Staal, but believes the veteran has brought intangibles to the team. Staal's willingness to play on the wing, instead of at his more natural center position, has allowed the Rangers to become a much deeper team.

"I think what is transpiring is what I expected," Vigneault said. "I feel that his line with Kevin [Hayes] and Jesper [Fast] has been a very efficient line for us in the past four or five games.

"You have a guy in there that has playoff experiences. He's won [the Stanley Cup] and he has gone to the Final. I'm banking he will share his experience, his love of the game. There is no doubt in my mind that he wants to win and he wants to win [badly]. He's going to bring it."

In the final game of the regular season, Staal collided with Fast and fell to the ice in pain. He left the game and did not return. However, Staal was a full participant in practice Monday.

"It didn't feel good initially, but [I had a] good day [Sunday]," Staal said. "I feel fine. I'll be 100 percent for sure. I'm not worried about it. It was one of those freaky little plays that scared me for a half a second." 

Staal won the Stanley Cup with Carolina in 2006, scoring 28 points in 25 games. Three seasons later, the Hurricanes made it to the Eastern Conference Final; Staal had 15 points in 18 games.

The Hurricanes have not been to the postseason since that run to the Eastern Conference Final seven years ago, but Staal still remembers how the buildings got louder, the players became more focused and the emotions were magnified.

Getting back to that level is the main reason he agreed to uproot what he acknowledges was a very good life in Raleigh, N.C.

I think you don't get the full feeling until you are out there for the start of Game 1, but you can feel the energy already, just coming to the rink; more people around, everybody is talking about [the playoffs]," Staal said. "It's been something that has been a long time for me the last couple of years to get that feeling again. I'm really excited. It's a good group of guys that I'm looking forward to battling with. It should be fun."

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